Jillian Stephenson has empathy encoded in her genes.
Her parents were humanitarian aid workers. While her family was living in Afghanistan, where she spent her preteen and early teen years, she saw people living lives in poverty and hardship that were very different than those she knew in her home country.
“I was always really aware that I had been dealt a particularly lucky hand … because I was born into a family in the United States,” Stephenson said. “So I felt like I couldn’t live my life without giving back in some way.”
As director of the Colorado Springs chapter of Safe Families for Children, Stephenson does that every day. The organization partners with local churches to provide temporary care for children whose families are in crisis situations so the children don’t have to go into foster care.
When her family wasn’t abroad, Stephenson lived in Colorado Springs while she was growing up. She graduated from The Vanguard School where, as a junior, she read about the field of social work and realized that was her calling.
Stephenson studied social work at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. While there, she started a ministry that worked with refugee children from East African families living in inner city neighborhoods of San Diego.
Stephenson received her master’s degree in social work from Metro State University of Denver. She earned her clinical social work license while serving as a child welfare caseworker at the El Paso County Department of Human Services.
After completing the clinical hours required for her license, Stephenson started looking for other ways to help the families with whom she was working.
“I just felt like there had to be some other kind of approach or support that we can offer to families to keep them from having to struggle and wait until things are so bad that we have to intervene,” she said.
When she heard about Safe Families for Children, “I realized this was the missing piece that I had been looking for.”
Stephenson is the only full-time staff member at the Colorado Springs chapter. That means she wears a lot of hats, from partnering children with volunteer families and overseeing those relationships, to engaging with churches, community outreach and fundraising.
She is proud of how it hit the ground running at a difficult time and of achieving a major goal — leading an organization that makes a difference in people’s lives.
“I am just privileged to be part of something that I believe in so strongly,” she said.
She looks forward to growing the organization to the point where she can hire more staff and serve more families.
Matthew Ayres, founder and CEO of Dream Centers, an organization that serves women who have experienced trauma such as homelessness, said Stephenson is “a thoughtful, inspiring, character-filled leader who is courageous and willing to take risks. She demonstrates an admirable attitude to serve others faithfully, while possessing the high capacity and generous humility to stand out personally and professionally. She’s not simply advocating for the most vulnerable children and families in our community — she’s building an institution here that directly impacts their lives and will continue to for generations to come.”