Bonners Ferry natives Larry and Shelly Steckman on a mission to serve
By Abigail Thorpe
It was the late 1970s. Larry Steckman was a wrestler for Bonners Ferry High School, and his to-be wife, Shelly Barton, was a wrestling cheerleader at the same school. Seventy miles away, family friend Conrad Garner was wrestling for rival Lakeland High School in Rathdrum, Idaho. It was the beginning of a lifelong love of wrestling for both men—and also the seed for something bigger. Larry, Shelly and Conrad would all go on to use wrestling as a means to create positive change in communities, both locally and internationally: Garner as the wrestling coach for Bonners Ferry High School, the Steckmans working with the US Wrestling Foundation’s Wrestling for Peace, and beyond.
As Larry and Conrad competed in North Idaho, wrestler Dan Russell was in Southern Idaho working for another state wrestling championship. He would go on to be a world-class wrestler and coach, dear friend of Larry and Shelly, and a driving force behind their ultimate life work and vision.
“We are so very proud of the work of men like Conrad Garner and Dan Russell in helping to shape the minds of the future leaders of our communities and world,” says Larry. “I never knew then that God would use wrestling and these relationships to give me a vision for sharing the love God has shown so generously to me.
“This story is really about relationships, faith, hope and love,” shares Larry. In the early 2000s, he and Shelly met Russell, who was living with his wife Joy and kids in Battleground, Washington. The two connected over their shared love of wrestling, and their desire to utilize the sport as a vehicle for spreading the message of love throughout the world.
Larry and Shelly purchased a fuel testing laboratory called FOI Laboratories, which tests fuel for various reasons, and serves ASTM, EPA, Amazon, airports, various municipalities, hospitals and the military. Their hope was to use the profits from the company to help fund philanthropic and faith-sharing efforts in developing countries—a dream that would be realized beyond their expectations.
Soon after, the couple founded a project called Hope for Her in conjunction with a Ugandan NGO called Hope for Restoration Initiative founded by Robert and Pam Kiggundu. The mission of Hope for Her was to help sexually exploited and abused women in Uganda gain employment manufacturing reusable sanitary pads in a safe workplace, provide free sanitary pads to those in need, and promote environmentally friendly manufacturing and sanitary practices.
“Many young women (high school age and younger) prostitute themselves for the price of a pad,” explains Larry. “While our work was very under the radar, something very special was happening. You could tangibly feel the tremendous love coming from the women and girls receiving the pads.”
“In the beginning, it wasn't easy,” he remembers. “There wasn't enough material or pads or money—in fact, we sometimes still don't have enough due to the overwhelming need.” Larry was discussing the challenges of the sanitary pad design as well as quality control with new friend and supporter Dan, when Dan provided a solution: an award-winning retired nurse who was an avid seamstress and was struggling with feeling needed after retirement. She helped them design a stitching pattern, pad design and production method that would result in the current production of almost 8,000 pads a month. The nonprofit now distributes in Ugandan high schools, Entebbe, and on the various islands on Lake Victoria.
During this time, Dan was serving as a coach and ambassador with USA Wrestling. The Steckmans were still passionate about using wrestling to share a message of love and giving, and partnered with Dan to find a way to serve. “We spent many hours discussing how to utilize wrestling as a vehicle in our message of love,” recalls Larry. “One of our next steps in faith was a chaplain program to serve alongside the world of Olympic and world-class wrestlers traveling with the team.”
This program would serve as the beginning of Dan and Joy Russell’s vision for Wrestling for Peace—a nonprofit organization with the US Wrestling Foundation that provides support to various communities throughout the world through leadership development, sports diplomacy, medical aid, emergency response, prefabricated buildings, outreach, and wrestling gear and equipment donations.
“These seeds of faith continue to grow deep and produce fruit today,” says Larry.
Wrestling for Peace is built on the foundation that wrestling is a universal struggle in that everyone is dealing with some trial. The program “embraces this universal struggle to help communities in need.” Ambassadors for the program use wrestling as a sport to help transcend borders and cultures in an effort to bring humanitarian aid to those most in need.
Russell and Larry traveled together to Algeria and the Sahara Desert as ambassadors in the beginning stages of Wrestling for Peace. While spreading the message of love and providing medicine to the Sahrawi Tribe—a four-decade refugee community—they met Austin Landes, founder of the nonprofit Make it Rain, who ultimately became a medicine partner of Wrestling for Peace and partners with Hope for Her. “We have merged our work, and I currently serve on their Board of Directors,” says Larry.
Make it Rain is an organization consisting of a collection of individuals whose sole focus is utilizing their networking skills and abilities to help others. They focus on providing medicine, medical clinics and other aid initiatives to regions in the Sahrawi Democratic Republic, Uganda, Zambia and Mexico. It was the perfect pairing for the Steckmans, Hope for Her and Wrestling for Peace, and a great way to unite efforts and connections in a desire to serve the underserved.
The Steckmans continued their work with Hope for Her and Hope for Restoration Initiative, partnering with Make it Rain, while also working as ambassadors for Wrestling for Peace. All shared the same mission of providing hope, love and aid to communities in need. “The next act of faith was to let go and let God be in charge,” says Larry. The support they needed would come in a major way not long after.
“I don't remember the day, but Austin called me and said, ‘The First Lady of Zambia wants to talk about the pads ... when can we go?,’” recalls Larry. “Now it's one thing to do some traveling and field work with a school or the Red Cross; it's another thing entirely to be vetted by a government's First Lady. ... There was absolutely no reason for me—a rough around the edges guy—to be discussing pads with the First Lady of Zambia, but I did it and we are very close friends to this day. The pad project touched her heart in a very special way.”
This meeting with the First Lady of Zambia marked the beginning of incredible opportunity and impact for Make it Rain, Hope for Restoration Initiative and Wrestling for Peace. Last season, Hope for Her delivered 1,000 sanitary pads and through the First Lady’s Foundation created educational training for girls in the school system to manufacture and produce sanitary pads. In partnership with each other, the nonprofits were able to deliver medicine that impacted over 60,000 men, women and children, says Larry, and they have developed and approved designs for medical outpost clinics in rural areas in partnership with Virginia Tech and AutoDesk. These outposts will provide access to much needed medicine and hygienic medical aid in regions that currently suffer from a lack of resources.
“It’s no secret that wrestling builds toughness,” write Austin and Julie Landes in a recent Wrestling for Peace update of their work. “Some of the toughest people we’ve met live in remote areas of the world, battling harsh climates, debilitating disease, intense conditions, limited job opportunities and desperately lacking resources. Our hope is that through these initiatives and those of the USA Wrestling for Peace Program, we can increase the amount of lives impacted. Wrestlers are made for overcoming obstacles and life’s toughest challenges, and we’re looking forward to our continued efforts together.”
The Steckmans have seen many doors open as they continue to follow their calling and passion for reaching those in need. The First Lady of Zambia is not the only influential figure in Africa to show interest in the work the Steckmans, Landes and Russells are doing. “We have invitations this year to meet two other first ladies and possibly a king and a prince,” shares Larry. “Again, God’s favor in play.”
Despite their many travels, Larry and Shelly choose to make the Pacific Northwest their home base, and although they now live in Vancouver, Washington, they are still very connected to their hometown of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. “We find great pleasure in hearing the many stories of love that come from our hometown, stories like Conrad's and Dan's,” says Larry.
Dan, Conrad and Larry still support and encourage the wrestling program back in Idaho, and in particular Bonners Ferry, sharing a passion for the common bond they share, the sport that has taken them from wrestling on the mats, to fighting for peace and prosperity for those in need.
“We love finding ways to give back to our community however we can,” says Larry. “There are many great unselfish relationship stories that the residents of Bonners Ferry are constantly making anew. You don’t have to look very hard to find what the hard-working people of Bonners Ferry are involved in.”
Larry and Shelly still look to North Idaho and Bonners Ferry’s spirit of giving and community as an early formative part of their desire to extend their message of peace and love beyond the borders of the U.S.
“The Pacific Northwest and beyond have amazing stories of service and love,” adds Larry. “If you peel back the love, you will more than likely find a wrestler's heart beating somewhere in the fight.”