Hailing from Mobile, Ala., via Memphis, Tenn., Stephen Sparks ventured West in 2000 to Phoenix through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Living with five others in the program, Stephen was assigned to work with Save the Family in Mesa.
After riding his bike to work everyday for 365 days, Stephen joined the Save the Family team as the Youth Coordinator. Not only did he take the kids on fun outings, including lots of sporting events, he also developed a cooking program for teens (this was pre-Chopped Junior!), where he brought award-winning chefs in house to teach teens who were responsible for younger siblings, how to cook simple, healthy meals. Stephen secured grants for food from Safeway and even created a cookbook for the participants to take home so they could easily implement what they learned. This program remains one of his pride and joys. Around that same time, he saw a need in his church for programming and networking for the post-college, pre-30’s crowd, and so he worked with church leadership to fill the need. A true indication for the road ahead, Stephen was destined to breathe life and innovation into existing programs.
Fast-forward to 2015, Stephen joins Labor’s Community Service Agency (LCSA) and inherits the SHIFT program. This is after meeting and marrying his wife, Erin, getting his MBA while working full-time, and having two children (now 8 and 3). True to his Jesuit roots, Stephen accepts the position with LCSA because it allows him to address the systematic issues of poverty, in addition to serving those in poverty.
About LCSA’s SHIFT Program
Securing Help In Family Transportation (SHIFT) offers reliable vehicles at a very low price to working families that have identified transportation as a major barrier to their long-term financial independence. Families engage in financial coaching and workforce development services through LCSA to set realistic goals for increasing their earned income, improving budgeting skills, reducing debt, improving credit, and engaging in mainstream banking.
Due to internal LCSA changes and external changes within local and Federal government, SHIFT was struggling. Stephen set out to save the program. He worked to change the criteria – previous beneficiaries of the program had to be homeless – now it’s available to families earning below 80% AMI. He then leveraged his relationships with the City of Mesa, Section 8 Housing’s family self-sufficiency advocates, and the Teachers Unions to build partnerships. This has launched pilot programs in Chandler and Tempe to provide valuable data on the impact of accessible and affordable transportation on poverty rates.
Eight versions of his script | Seven audio recordings | Several practice sessions to refine body language, attire and tone | Five points to remember the night of … this and so much more in between
In a continued effort to provide SHIFT additional funding, Stephen applied to Fast Pitch. He met his mentors, Scott Salkin and Michael Zirulnik, on January 12 at the Fast Pitch Fundamentals. Michael is a seasoned Fast Pitch mentor, who knows how to coach innovators into the finals; Scott was fresh to the program, but is a strategic thinking and a man of big ideas, having launched several start-ups of his own. Not only did they guide Stephen in crafting a winning pitch, but they also expanded his thinking on the SHIFT program.
And this is where SVPAZ comes in – through Fast Pitch, Stephen is now thinking capacity building. Instead of a single offering and attempting to only expand the fleet of cars, why not a tiered approach with two types of fleets and packages?
Stephen sat down with his staff to figure out how to improve capacity and where they lacked in institutional knowledge. This discussion led to the idea to hire an automotive expert to help program strategically grow. Stephen sketched out a sustainable model; a plan to build the fleet, hire an expert AND generate revenue for seed money that will reinvest itself. And for those who served on the SVPAZ Selection Committee, this vision was right for the long-term SVPAZ Innovator Award.
Class of 2017
Outside of scheduled Fast Pitch meetings, the Innovators have gotten together socially, connected on social media, and the night of cheered without refrain for one another. Stephen never saw the other finalists as competition, “we were fellow colleagues on this journey together. The nine of us all serve different communities so we were able to learn from each other.”
Stephen’s enthusiasm to work with SVPAZ radiates. He has several ideas and is eager to get started. If you’re interested in supporting our new investee, please email email@example.com.