Denise Terry didn’t do anything special to win a special award from the MIAA.
She was just herself.
“I’m having a little bit of a hard time,” she said. “I’m very much honored, but I don’t understand why I get an award just for loving kids because that’s really all I do. That’s a little puzzling to me — also awe inspiring and humbling — that I can get an award for doing that.
“I’m just a normal person. If you work at a university, you should like college-age kids. If you don’t, you shouldn’t work there. That’s why it’s very puzzling to me.”
Terry, an employee for Fresh Ideas, the food service provider for Missouri Southern, received the MIAA SAAC Mentor of the Year award during the league’s awards ceremony last week at the Kansas City Public Library Plaza Branch.
The league’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee votes from nominations submitted by student-athletes from each school about a person who has had a profound impact on the students’ lives throughout the year.
“It very much so caught me off guard, and then to win it was a little shocking,” she said. “When I looked at the program at the previous winners, of the nine before me, seven of them were (academic) doctors or professors and one was a reverend. I’m a cashier in the cafeteria. That was a real shocker to me, too.”
Terry, affectionately called “Momma D” by the MSSU students, has been the cashier in Mayes Dining Hall for the last six years. She attends as many home sports events as she can, and she tries to learn as much as she can about each student she meets. Basically, she’s a second mother to all.
“I’m the first person they see when they walk in the cafeteria, and I’m the last person they see when they leave the cafeteria,” she said. “I try to learn names, get to know them. Eventually they will see and open up to me and then come talk to me. I don’t ever tell them what to do. I help them to make their own decisions. A lot of times they will say ‘this coach isn’t fair.’ I say life isn’t fair, get used to it. It’s like life lessons. ... I tell them the truth, and I do it in love. That’s my philosophy ... always tell the truth, just do it in love.
“These athletes come from all different parts of the country, all different cultures, all different backgrounds. Some come from out of this country. They come together — in my case at Missouri Southern — and are thrown together, told to be a student first, a student-athlete, go to class, get good grades, get a degree. And second of all work harder than they ever have in the sport they play.
“And then they have to get along with everybody ... professors, coaches, teammates. For some that’s not always easy. It’s an adjustment from junior college to college or from high school to college, and sometimes it’s not easy for them.”
Terry is appreciated by more than the MSSU students.
“Denise has had such a positive impact on our guys and program as a whole,” Lions men’s basketball associate head coach Sam McMahon wrote on Twitter. “She is so deserving of this award. We are blessed to have her here at Missouri Southern.”
“Much deserved and so proud of her and our student-athletes in nominating her,” MSSU athletics director Jared Bruggeman wrote on Twitter. “She optimizes making a difference in kids’ lives one step at a time.”
Graduation day is one of “Momma D’s” favorite days.
“I want them to be the best version of themselves that they can be,” she said. “Graduation is always the most exciting time. It means they got their degree and are moving on. It’s a celebration.
“A lot of them say they want to go on to the next level of whatever sport. To me, the goal is that degree. I think sports helps kids to learn about life, how to work hard, how to persevere, how to deal with life. That’s what I love about sports, but for me, the goal is for them to get their degree.”
Terry came to Missouri Southern after working in home health care.
“That was a little difficult,” she said about her former job. “Your clients ended up being deceased or going into a long-term facility, and sometimes there were six weeks in between (clients). I was looking for something a little more steady. I applied at Missouri Southern and got the job. It fell into my lap, and it’s been a great fit because I just love those kids.”