Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Former bank manager guiding nonprofit

Sarah Stephens, executive director of Horizons Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry, poses for a picture Thursday, July 5, 2018. Stephens was once a bank manager, but felt a calling to work for the soup kitchen. | H-W Photo/Phil Carlson
Phil Carlson1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 9, 2018 9:45 am Updated: Jul. 9, 2018 10:26 am

QUINCY — Sarah Stephens’ office at Horizons Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry is minimal and unassuming. An award she received last year sits in the window sill, and a neat stack of papers, a laptop, printer, and a large photo of her daughter, Sophie, are the only items on her desk — a fitting office for the farm girl from Golden, Ill. who never had any intentions of running a non-profit. 

The oldest of six children, Stephens was the “mother hen” of her roost growing up. All six children went to college. Before she found her calling she would compare herself to her siblings, several of whom hold leadership positions in large corporations. That isn’t much of an issue for her today.

After high school, she went on to study fashion merchandising, landing a retail job that brought her little joy. She and her husband, Mark, frequently relocated as Mark’s job demanded. The couple lived in Yorkville, Ill., Effingham, Ill., Rushville, Ill., and Bluffton, Ind. before settling in Quincy.

“He is everything God intended a husband to be,” Stephens said. “He has always believed in me, even when I couldn’t believe in myself.”

Shortly after moving to Bluffton, the couple applied for a loan at a local bank. Mark knew the president of the bank, who later called Stephens to offer her a job as a loan secretary. From there, she worked her way up to loan officer and eventually manager of that particular bank branch.

“When they offered me the branch manager job, it freaked me out,” she said, “but it’s been fun to look back and see how God has used everything in my life.”

Stephens guided the branch’s 30 tellers and loan officers through a period of turbulence when it was bought out by a large national bank, and the culture of the bank saw a significant shift. 

“It was hard, there were a lot of unhappy employees and customers for a time,” she said, “but once we made it through the first year, it became more positive.”

She was named manager of the year for Indiana for her efforts.

“I’ve always had a restless yearning, ever since I was young,” Stephens said. “I knew there had to be more to life. I always thought, if I had a successful career, I would be happy. I got that, but it didn’t satisfy that restless yearning.”

Soon after giving birth, the family moved to Quincy, and she stepped away from her banking job, turning down a lucrative corporate marketing job in the process.

“A friend called me out of the blue one day and asked if I wanted to go to work for a ministry,” she said. “I was not interested, at all, but I respected her, so I decided to at least go and talk to them.”

Stephens was initially being considered for a management position at a spa Horizons was looking to buy and use as a profit generator for the soup kitchen and food pantry ministries, but the spa sale never happened. Having gotten her hopes up for a job she hadn’t originally even wanted, only to be let down in the final hour, Stephens languished on the failed deal for six months. 

“I wrestled with God until I came across a particular scripture in Isaiah, and I knew I had to get over it,” she said. “That very day was the day Bill Barker called me and asked if I would come to work at Horizons as his assistant.”

Stephens came on at Horizons, and Mark predicted that she would become executive director there within five years. Ten months after she started, Barker left and she became the director.

“Through the entire process, there were too many things happening that couldn’t be coincidences,” Stephens said. “I sensed that this was my calling.”

As she did with the bank, Stephens guided Horizons through a transitional period of growth. Looking to move from St. John’s Parish into its current facility at 224 S. 8th St., Horizons embarked upon a capital campaign — attempting to make the move without taking on any debt. 

Stephens remembers one instance in which Horizons needed $3,300 for a kiln for Horizon’s Empty Bowls program. The organization received an unexpected $3,300 grant shortly after the kiln was quoted. A day after the vacummn broke, a community member happened to bring one in. Stephens has many of these stories.

“We’ve always received whatever we needed,” Stephens said. “It doesn’t matter what we need, it shows up. You know that it’s from Him.”

Since she came on in February 2010, Stephens has seen Horizons grow from a small minitstry into a “thriving organization.” She has become bolder in her faith, trusting that the organization’s needs will always be met. That belief has proved universally correct so far.

“It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come, and God has carried us every step of the way,” she said. “I need Horizons way more than Horizons needs me.”