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Steve Charchan puts inheritance to work for students

Steve Charchan stands next to equipment at Caribou Physical Therapy in Sandpoint, where he receives care for a  degenerative joint disease. Charchan inherited some money and created Heavenly Helping Hands, a scholarship fund  that supports students going into physical or occupational therapy.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Steve Charchan stands next to equipment at Caribou Physical Therapy in Sandpoint, where he receives care for a degenerative joint disease. Charchan inherited some money and created Heavenly Helping Hands, a scholarship fund that supports students going into physical or occupational therapy. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Once Nick Peterson made the decision to enroll in a three-year physical therapy doctorate program, he was faced with a big dilemma – how to finance it.

“We (he and his wife Kori) were just getting ready to jump into that big pile of debt that goes with being a student,” said Peterson.

But thanks to the generosity of Sandpoint resident Steve Charchan, Peterson and three other physical and occupational therapy students in Eastern Washington and North Idaho do not have to carry the burden of worrying how to pay for all their expenses. As long as they do their part and achieve good grades, Charchan will pay for their tuition and books. An investment, he says, in the future of America.

Charchan, a former accountant who also served 28 years in the Navy, suffers from a degenerative joint disease. Since 2001 he has endured four major surgeries on his neck and back. He has two fusions and continues today with therapy five times a week.

“I’ve gone from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane to walking on my own four times since 2001,” said Charchan.

And there have been complications along the way. In 2002 a surgery that should have required a seven-day hospital stay instead resulted in a staph infection that required extensive care before Charchan could return home to Sandpoint. He spent 30 days in Deaconess Medical Center in Spokane, followed by 35 days at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Center in Spokane – an experience he jokingly refers to as boot camp.

But it is that boot camp and the devotion of his physical and occupational therapists that Charchan says brought him back from the lowest point in his life

“Physical therapists and occupational therapists have a great deal of enthusiasm and love,” said Charchan.

He especially credits Tim Totten, a certified occupational therapy assistant at Life Care in Sandpoint, with saving his life.

“I had lost my sense of humor. If it wasn’t for Tim, I don’t know what I’d have done,” said Charchan.

So when Charchan unexpectedly inherited money last year, he decided to help those who have helped him.

“Being a Christian and a spiritual man, I didn’t want to waste the money on myself,” said Charchan. “Money has a definite purpose, and I believe God intended us to use it to better mankind.”

Charchan came up with the idea of providing scholarships for students who are studying physical or occupational therapy. He formed a nonprofit organization, enlisted volunteers to serve on the board of directors and formulated his plan.

“I figured, if God gave me this idea then it should be something heavenly, so I named it the Heavenly Helping Hands Foundation,” said Charchan.

But it is not a free handout. Charchan said the amount he will pay for each student’s tuition depends upon his or her grade-point average. But the recipients of the scholarships say the sliding scale for reimbursement is not only generous, but it also inspires them.

“If nothing else it gives you even more motivation,’ said Shelly Ackerman, who has been a physical therapy assistant at Bonner General Hospital for 12 years and is now taking the necessary schooling to become a physical therapist.

“I only accept official transcripts,” said Charchan, who will pay 100 percent of books and tuition expenses for a g.p.a. between 3.91 and 4.0; 90 percent for a g.p.a. of 3.81 to 3.90; and 75 percent for a g.p.a. between 3.0 and 3.8.

“I’ve never paid less than 75 percent yet,” said Charchan. “They are all A students. They make me pay, and I enjoy doing it.”

Peterson and another scholarship recipient, Casey Traver, first met Charchan while working for a physical therapist in Sandpoint.

Peterson was the first recipient of Charchan’s scholarship money.

“When he first told me I thought maybe he was going to give me $100 toward a text book,” said Peterson. “When he told me it was a full scholarship, I had to almost pick myself up off the floor.”

“His mouth dropped,” added Charchan.

For Traver, who attends the master’s program for occupational therapy at Eastern Washington University, the gift was unexpected and made the difference between whether her master’s degree was a dream or a reality. A single mother of 9-year-old twins, Traver earned her living teaching music and is also a member of the Coeur d’Alene Symphony.

One of her twins has Down syndrome and has been in therapy since she was two months. Now that her children are school-age, Traver said she wanted to change careers and became interested in occupational therapy after seeing the huge difference it made in her daughter’s life.

But to work, raise her children and go to school she knew would require financial assistance.

Traver spent several hours a week at the library researching what scholarships were available.

“It (Charchan’s scholarship) provided a huge amount of relief on multiple fronts,” said Traver. “I was worried I would have to make decisions that would put me in a lot of debt.”

Mona Larson has been one of Charchan’s therapists for the last seven years. She said even before he inherited his money, he was always willing to help anyone who needed it.

“He’s the most generous man I’ve ever met,” said Larson. “He has a big heart and cares about people.”

At a recent Christmas luncheon, Charchan brought together the students, his board of directors, his wife Patty – whom he met when she was a nurse at one of the facilities where he went through rehabilitation – and therapists who have inspired him. Each one had an opportunity to speak, and the theme was all the same. Charchan is a big-hearted man whose generosity is unparalleled.

Board member Larry Dirks said Charchan’s generosity is not limited to the Heavenly Helping Hands Foundation but extends throughout the community. Fellow board member Paul Ousley agrees.

“Steve can sell more raffle tickets than any other guy I know,” said Ousley.

A former Shriner clown, Charchan said he wants to continue the Heavenly Helping Hands Foundation and is looking for fundraising opportunities. His dream is to extend the opportunity he has given these four students.

“I’m investing in them and their future,” said Charchan. “It’s a different type of return. It will give us a better America.”

At the end of the luncheon, Charchan, who in addition to his joint disease has bilateral hearing aids and an insulin pump for his diabetes, addressed the students of whom he says he is extremely proud. “You are all young and have all your faculties. If you ever lose one of them do not let it stop you.”

Contact correspondent Patty Hutchensby e-mail at

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