Family Helps Hospital Provide Guest Cottage After Losing Son

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Ben Stephens had ice water in his veins.

Take the time he was in high school. In the waning moments of a football game against Monroe Area High School, his coach sent him onto the field to attempt a game-winning field goal.

With the game riding on the teenager’s foot, the ball sailed smoothly through the uprights. Oconee County High School won.

Or take those days in the Cascades Range in Oregon when the young man challenged the dizzy heights of mountains. Clinging to the shear sides of cliffs, he would inch himself ever higher. Below him lay unspeakable dangers.

Stephens may have been a young man who approached challenges with a calm demeanor, but he quenched his creative side through artwork and photography.

The adventurer, who grew up in Watkinsville and graduated Oconee County High School in 2006, had his life come to a tragic end at age 31. He died just weeks after he was critically injured in a car crash in Atlanta on Dec. 30, 2019.

The unexpected tragedy came crushing down on his family, including his parents, Terry and Sue Stephens, sister Genevieve Stephens and brothers TJ Stephens and Jamie Stephens.

Ben was an organ donor and helped others live through his death.

In the wake of his passing, Stephens’ family was determined to continue that spirit of giving. They created The Benjamin John Stephens Foundation to raise money to help others. On the afternoon of March 30, a major effort for the foundation was realized when the St. Mary’s Mercy Guest Cottage was dedicated at the St. Mary’s facilities off Jennings Mill Road.

The cottage was completely renovated through the foundation donations. Formerly, the house was used as a convent for the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. After the sisters retired, the house sat unused.

At the dedication, St. Mary’s President & CEO Montez Carter expressed his gratitude to the Stephens family for undertaking a project that will help families who have patients at the hospital and its hospice center.

“If loved ones live hours or days away, the stress is magnified many times over. This beautiful cottage will take away much of that worry and hassle,” Carter said.

The cottage, Carter said, “is an expression of who we are and what our purpose is.”

Tanya Adcock, St. Mary’s Vice President of Post-Acute Care Services, who has also lost a child, read a letter directly to Sue Stephens about how losing a child is “a mother’s absolute nightmare.”

“I know your heart is forever broken. I know you miss him. I know you just wish you could see his face one more time — hug his neck and freeze that moment so it would last forever,” Adcock said.

TJ Stephens spoke to the gathering and recalled those weeks the family stayed in Atlanta while his brother was hospitalized. “A little shimmer of light that we had was the house we were able to stay in,” he said.

The family stayed in Atlanta swapping out family members to be by Ben’s side 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He died Jan. 20, 2020.

Establishing a cottage at St. Mary’s, TJ Stephens said, is “a blessing to be able to pay it forward with other families.”

All four of the Stephens children were born at St. Mary’s and the legacy continues.

“My daughter was born there just two months ago. Talk about close to the heart, it doesn’t get any closer,” the eldest son said.

Ben loved soccer and became close friends with members of the team at Oconee High.

One of his best friends, Robbie Galvin, described the bond the teammates formed during those days.

“We loved that dude,” Galvin said.

Ben Stephens graduated the University of Georgia with an art degree, and not long afterward moved to Bend, Oregon, where he immersed himself in the outdoors from mountain climbing to whitewater rafting and backpacking. But he answered a call to come back home to Georgia. And that is when the wreck occurred in Atlanta.

After the dedication ceremony came to an end, Terry Stephens recalled the evening when his young son celebrated the game-winning kick. The father, known as “Big Dog” for his love of football, was on the sidelines taking photographs.

“He looked like he had ice water in his veins,” his father recalled as he described the nonchalant way his son strode onto the field for the field goal attempt.

After the game, the father and son talked and Stephens said he told his son, “If you’re just playing for me, you don’t have to.”

The next day he quit football, the father recalled with a chuckle.

Ben turned his full attention to soccer, described by his father as “his passion.” Ben was later named an all-state defensive player by the Georgia High School Coaching Association.

Ben dedicated himself to his passions, whether soccer, the outdoors or his art, his father said.

In his absence, the family created the foundation that continues to provide scholarships to young people in Ben’s passions of art, soccer and the outdoors.

“It’s part of the healing process for us,” Terry Stephens said.

For more on the foundation, go to http://www.thebenjaminjohnstephensfoundation.org/