After a six-year lapse, the Recreational Therapy Program at Western Carolina University has reinstated an award honoring a much-loved and often-remembered alumna and victim of a high-profile Western North Carolina murder.
Robert Thomas Fox, 21, was selected by his fellow students to receive the 2012 Karen Styles Spirit Award for his high academic achievement, active lifestyle, community involvement and commitment to the profession. He was honored with a plaque during an April 25 awards ceremony.
“There were so many great students that I didn’t think I had a chance. It felt really good that my fellow classmates thought that much of me,” Fox said of the award. “It really was a great honor.”
Recreational therapists use a variety of therapeutic modalities to improve or maintain the physical, cognitive, social, emotional and spiritual functioning of individuals with illnesses or disabling conditions to facilitate their full participation in life. Approximately 100 WCU students major in recreational therapy, part of WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.
Fox, the son of Lisa Cherry and Tom Fox of Lincolnton, carries a 3.759 grade point average and plans to graduate in December. With family members who have Alzheimer’s disease and depression, Fox entered WCU as a freshman knowing that he wanted to work in a helping profession.
“I thought if I could get involved with something that would help them, that would be something great to do,” he said.
Fox chose to pursue a degree in recreational therapy after learning more about the field from associate professor Jennifer Hinton. During his time at WCU, he has served as an officer with the Recreational Therapy Association, presented at professional conferences and worked with residents with Alzheimer’s disease and adolescents with autism and learning disabilities. After working closely with a young man with cerebral palsy during an adaptive skiing program this past winter at Cataloochee Ski Area in Haywood County, Fox has decided on a career in physical rehabilitation and adaptive sports in particular.
“The gratification I got from getting this kid down the hill – there’s no better feeling than that. That really gave me the vision of what I wanted to do. That would be my dream, to do adaptive sports with kids,” Fox said.
Karen Lynn Styles graduated from WCU in 1994 with a degree in therapeutic recreation; the major later was renamed to recreational therapy. While at WCU, Styles served as a resident assistant and was active in organizations including the Recreational Therapy Association and Last Minute Productions, a student-run organization that books campus entertainment. She had just accepted her first job post graduation, as a wilderness counselor, when she disappeared Oct. 31, 1994, while on a run in the Bent Creek Recreation Area of Pisgah National Forest. Her body was found approximately a month later following one of Buncombe County’s largest-ever search-and-rescue operations. The local man convicted in her death awaits execution at a penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
The only child of Katheryn Styles and the late Thad Styles of Candler, Styles is remembered as spirited and generous, a bright, responsible, Christian young woman who loved the outdoors and looked forward to beginning her career. She was the sort of student who would read to a blind classmate or, as one friend wrote in a letter to Katheryn Styles, “would listen and only give advice when it was requested.”
“Karen was a beautiful person with a true desire to serve humanity,” said Richard Starnes, associate professor of history at WCU who became friends with Styles when they both were WCU students and resident assistants.
The Karen Styles Spirit Award was established by other recreational therapy students in 1995, but it lapsed after faculty members who had known her retired. Current faculty members reinstated it on learning of Styles through conversations on campus and then communicating with her mother.
“I truly feel as if our program has a guardian angel,” said Hinton, who described learning about Styles and meeting her mother as a powerful life event.
It is “only fitting” that the program reinstate the award of a “wonderful role model,” said Linda Seestedt-Stanford, dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences. “Karen embodied the passion and commitment to her program that we wish all students would attain,” Seestedt-Stanford said.
The majority of programs within the College of Health and Human Sciences will consolidate under one roof this fall with the opening of the $46-million, 160,000-square-foot Health and Human Sciences Building, the university’s first LEED-certified building and the first building on WCU’s new West Campus.
By Jill Ingram