Connie Stophel is chief executive officer for Episcopal Children’s Services, the programs and services of which incorporate the latest research and proven best practices to help Florida families raise children who are ready to learn when they enter school.
Tell us about Episcopal Children’s Services and how it carries out its mission.
Our mission is simple: We want every child to enter school ready to learn and succeed. We carry out this mission by not only helping our children, but also helping and providing resources for their families as well. Our future is focused on our commitment to growing our services so that low-income and at-risk children are not left behind.
How important are these services to the children in the region? Is there a way you can see firsthand the positive effect they have on the children?
Our academic success is seen by our results in children demonstrating proficiency in the age-appropriate developmental benchmarks for each learning domain — social-emotional, physical, language, cognitive, literacy and mathematics. The positive effect is felt throughout our families and the success they achieve. Financial stability success is demonstrated by the fact that 100% of the families we serve received childcare assistance, which is crucial because childcare costs rival or exceed housing costs in our communities. Our work means that low-income families can direct their limited budgets to necessities including nutritious food, health care and housing.
If readers are inspired by the work of Episcopal Children’s Services and want to help out, how can they do so?
Please, volunteer! We would love to have members of the community join our army of volunteers that help us do the great work in our community. Log on to www.ecs4kids.org/volunteer for more information on both virtual and in-person volunteer efforts.
Tell me about your role as the chief executive officer. What are your duties? What is a typical day like?
As CEO of the second largest nonprofit (according to the Jacksonville Business Journal, 2021) in Northeast Florida, my duties and primarily my responsibilities have grown considerably over the last several years, just as the agency has grown. I have a very capable executive team who works with me, however, so that on any given day, each different area of the agency is “covered,” so to speak, by one of the teams’ chiefs who have expertise in their area. I am ultimately responsible for the nonprofit at the end of the day, but any strong leader knows that you can’t do everything yourself and you must surround yourself with those who know each content area and who are good leaders themselves. A typical day can bring anything that you least expect when you are serving in 14 very diverse counties and over 2,500 preschool children, employing 780-plus staff members! Most currently, since the pandemic hit, we are very happy if we have low COVID numbers and do not have to close any classrooms. We want to be open, serving our children and families, preparing our children to enter school ready to learn — that’s who we are!
What do you like best about what you do?
I would simply say that I love to live out our mission — preparing our children to enter school ready to learn! Otherwise, I would have to say helping families get to a better place than when they first start with us. Many families come to us in dire circumstances, and we give them a “hand up” to help them get to a better place. We provide free childcare, of course, but more than that we help parents find jobs, obtain their GEDS, find apartments or homes if they are homeless, obtain food if they are hungry — we meet them where they are! We do not judge them; we just care about them and love them and they feel that love and know this about Episcopal Children’s Services. In every testimony I’ve ever heard from parents, they say that they “felt loved at Episcopal Children’s Services” from the moment they walked in our doors — I hope that never changes and that, in the end, is the ultimate goal and compliment.
Tell us about your background. How did you get to where you are today?
I started to work at Episcopal Children’s Services many years ago just after graduating high school. I knew the then-executive director, Nancy Reddy. I worked off and on and came back a few times to help out over the years as I married and had my two children. Dr. Reddy told me one day that she could see me being in her shoes and “running the place one day.” I smiled and thanked her and just told her I wasn’t planning on that. That was in the 1970s that she told me her prediction and when I was elected by the board as CEO in 2003, Dr. Reddy’s was the first call of congratulations I received. God surely has an interesting sense of humor, I must say!
What do you like best about living here on the First Coast?
I was born and raised in Jacksonville and only moved to Fernandina Beach four years ago. I love the area and can’t see myself living anyplace else.
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