While attending community college in the heart of Chicago, Jacksonville native Anthony C. Stephens witnessed “abject poverty” for the first time in his life. Students would talk about spending their last dollar to ride the train to school and arrive to class in the same clothes daily, without textbooks or school supplies. He came to know his classmates and to respect their desire to overcome these challenges and earn a college degree.
Stephens would hear stories of hunger and poverty that “made me just shudder” and he thought, “This is something I can do something about.” He recognized how a lack of information and pride created real barriers for people.
Stephens decided to focus on ways he could overcome these barriers, offering to help individuals understand and fill out forms, provide rides, and access computers.
“It didn’t cost me anything to help them,” Stephens explains. “They deserve just as much dignity as I do. They just needed a little help.” When individuals had access to resources to overcome these physical challenges, he says, “The dignity of seeing what they could do kept them going.”
These experiences inspire Stephens in his career as the Executive Director of Jacksonville UNITE. This community organization assists agencies and individuals with the goal of reducing the effects of poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Jacksonville UNITE’s clients and services are diverse, but their work extends from providing a ride to a dentist appointment for an individual, to helping acquire a community building, to assisting an organization with recruiting a volunteer base.
Organizations will often come to Stephens with an idea, and he helps them outline the process to act on that idea. Jacksonville UNITE is responsible for “the background work that most people don’t see until it’s presented in the public,” Stephens explains. This can involve petitioning for signatures to get a measure on the ballot, creating press releases, acquiring permits, and reaching out to local representatives.
On the individual level, Stephens continues to address both short and long term needs. He helps individuals gain access to emergency assistance and navigate applications for food and health care resources. Sometimes he acts as an advocate, helping individuals understand their options and reaching out to community organizations and businesses that can assist them. In many ways, his work is a continuation of what he started in college, helping individuals overcome physical and financial barriers so they can focus on education, employment, and family goals.
The resources are already in place, but individuals often need an advocate to help access them. For example, a young man exiting the foster system may be facing homelessness and hunger. He can come to Jacksonville UNITE to receive assistance overcoming these challenges. The staff at UNITE can help him understand his benefits, register for school, access transportation, and seek employment.
Stephens’s experience with a variety of groups within the community can also provide a unique perspective for addressing different needs. Jacksonville UNITE helped coordinate volunteers and funds for sack lunches to address hunger on the weekends and during the summer. The program provided much-needed assistance, but volunteers realized that very few men were accessing the services. Jacksonville UNITE was able to determine some of the reasons for this disparity and brainstorm creative solutions.
Jacksonville UNITE is also connected with staff in Springfield and Chicago, working “issue by issue to build up the necessary things” to meet their goals. One individual working with Anthony in Chicago is a friend from his college days. This young man struggled with poverty and hunger but went on to become his student body president and an investment broker. He benefitted first hand from assistance and wants to assist others in the same way.
Stephens says that success stories like his friends, combined with many more, motivate him to continue his work with UNITE. He asks, “If you can help, why wouldn’t you?”