If you want to call out a rumored dedicated chairperson of a local nonprofit agency, request an interview in between fundraisers. If you get a time set up within a few business days, there’s a good chance you’ve hit paydirt.
True dedication becomes clearer still, when the sit-down occurs and there are no notes needed and no searching for words, just a flow of praise, ad-lib style, that imparts information without any agenda except to incite interest in the endeavor he or she represents.
So it is with Steve Amos and Stepping Out Inc.
On a Monday afternoon in July, Amos met the agency’s executive director, Lori Jarnigan, at the Stepping Out offices for a shared testimony of how a small, working board can fully support an organization with the audacious vision of changing people’s lives for the better.
Jarnigan has been with the agency since October 2015. Amos first came on the board of directors in 2009, had a short hiatus, rejoined and was named to a second term in 2015.
Amos got to know its founder, the late Patrice Puglise, through events hosted by the Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce; she approached him about the agency being in need of a spot to hold board meetings. At the time, he was employed by an organization that had just such a space.
“We worked it out to where it could be used for the board meetings and Patrice said, ‘Well, you should probably be on the board,’” Amos said.
“I knew about Stepping Out, but didn’t really understand the full program. So I got to learning about what we did, the people we worked with, the impacts we made, and just really saw what a great organization it is and wanted more and more to be a part of that,” Amos said. “Automatic Positive Thinking was our big class at the time, and we really weren’t doing the parenting or anger management programs. It’s just expanded so much into this really neat organization. It’s evolved into this entity that really makes a positive difference in the community.”
Stepping Out began as an organization to lift up women and support their personal development; over time, programs were developed that included practical lifeskills education for men and women.
“I remember that being a big discussion when we decided to expand classes to include men,” Amos said. “We questioned, ‘Were we equipped for that? Were we ready for that? Was that something we could take on? Then, when we looked at the overall mission of Stepping Out, which is to help people transform their lives, we thought, ‘why would you not include male and female particpants?’ So we went into it slowly and its really taken off; we have a really great mix of people who come here and get hope.”
Stepping Out programs do not assist in finding employment, necessarily, but they support employee retention for companies and industries.
“Sometimes it comes down to helping individuals keep a good job,” Amos said. “Finding work may not necessarily be the problem, but being able to stay and be happy and content and deal with the pressures of work and the pressures of home; so its more of maintaining a healthy life balance. I think we give the tools to help people to cope with the day-to-day. Sometimes people don’t like being in those routines, or it’s hard for them, and they so they make poor decisions that cause them to lose the job or lose the family. We help them to maintain a healthy, positive attitude that supports a healthy lifestyle.”
Over the last year, Stepping Out retained 40 percent of its clients, meaning those individuals chose to take additional classes that were not required.
“The fact that we have so many people coming back and wanting more is huge. That shows we are providing people with something they need, something that improves their lives,” Amos said.
As a working board, its members go above and beyond financial and fundraising support.
“They are very committed; they are very involved and they truly support us. One of the things I think is very important is that board members are required to attend classes, and they do; that really, really gives them a good understanding. You can really see and feel how we help others,” Jarnigan said.
When he participated in the APT program two years ago, for example, Amos was required to wear a suit and tie at his job and that’s how he appeared in every class.
“I was typically dressed in business attire and nobody else was,” he said. “I stood out like a sore thumb. At the time, Patrice was here and she never introduced me or said who I was; I was just a participant in the class. After you spend several weeks with people — most of our courses are 8-weeks at a time — they start opening up to you and begin to feel, ‘OK, I’m comfortable with this person,’ and it was the same for me.
“It’s amazing how people can feel free to open up and share what’s going on in their lives, what a freeing experience that is, just to offload some of that weight. It was a great experience for me. We can judge people, based on their appearance, but you learn that they are person that has feelings, has a life, has a family and they just want what we all want; we all want the same thing: to be happy and healthy, to have security, to have assurance that we’re making a difference or that we mean something to someone.”
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter about the demographics or the different social classes or whatever, everybody has the same needs,” Amos said.
“A lot of the people who walk through our doors have just never been taught the skills to face everyday situations,” Jarnigan said. “We all face problems or issues, or something; the difference is just how we deal with them. And a lot of people have never been taught how to appropriately handle day-to-day life. Or, if they have been taught, but they’ve lost their way. We just want to help them re-learn those skills.”
Confidence is one of the huge takeaways that clients gain from Stepping Out.
“You can see the glimmer of hope: ‘I can do better, I don’t have to live like this, there are better options,’” Jarnigan said.
The challenges will continue, no matter the level of progress achieved in the programs at Stepping Out.
“If you just come to the class and you go back into your old routines, back into the community that may not be healthy, you can easily settle back into the old way of doing things. I think a lot of people see that hope and want to grab onto that hope and that’s why they continue to come back to classes,” Amos said. “They can see the support is there for them to make better decisions and improve their lives.’
Jarnigan said her time at Stepping Out has provided her with the service-oriented position she had been looking for.
“And so much more,” Jarnigan said. “The Lord sending me here has been the biggest blessing of my life, just to be able to help others, to let them know. Because my background is not so great, and I know the hope that exists. There is so much of it out there, hopelessness, and we need to let people know they don’t have to live like that.”
Working together on a regular basis means Amos and Jarnagin share a bit of personal knowledge about each other.
Lori is involved in her church, Deliverance Temple Church, and her family, which includes her husband, Scotty, and four children: Zack, 15, twins Jessie and Jaydin, 14 and Scotty Jr., 11.
“I’m basically a taxi driver,” she said.
Both Amos and Jarnigan are runners — although one can be described as a next-level competitor.
“She beat me in the last 5K (2018 Jingle Run), so my goal is to beat Lori in the next one we run,” Amos said.
Amos was a member of the cross country team during high school, but after graduation, he lost interest in running. His wife, Carrie, who he described as a fitness buff, suggested they complete a 5K together several years ago. She had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t participate, but he did.
“I’d already psyched myself up,” Amos said. “I did a lot better than I anticipated I would, so that caught on; and now my daughter (10-year old, Emma) has run two races with me and she’s doing really good. She can run a 5K in under 30 minutes; I’m really proud of her. But I haven’t beat Lori yet.”
Amos’ family will expand to two daughters soon; Carrie is expecting to deliver in December — “Lori and I can definitely outrun her right now,” he said.
Amos travels a lot with his family and one of his hobbies is painting, turning everyday items into pop art — “A lot of people don’t know that; it’s not for sale,” he said. “I play guitar; my wife created a class for adults with disabilities at our church, First Baptist Morristown. There are 15-20 in the Sunday class. She pulled me into that; it was a little nerve-racking at first, but now its like a big family.”
He describes himself as a jack of all trades and master of none; he enjoys purchasing vehicles and customizing them, his current “monster truck” will be soon be replaced with a family-friendly SUV.
The Stepping Out board, Amos and Jarnigan are intent on the continued growth of the the agency. An insert in the Citizen Tribune is being planned for late September, to honor Puglise and her vision.
“It’s just such a great organization and it continues to evolve and get better,” Amos said. “We’ve got so many opportunities on the horizon. We just consider them carefully, and we don’t want to get away from our main mission and what Patrice wanted to see. Peoples’ lives get better. As long as we have the opportunity to do that, we’re going to continue to move forward. If someone would like to support us, we would love to include them in the publication.” Amos said.
The agency was recently awarded the Standards for Excellence Seal. For more information about Stepping Out Inc. and its programs, visit www.steppingoutinc.org.