Elizabeth Stephens grew up poor, and now works at a homeless shelter, a job she refers to as her "fourth child."
So when the Lawrence woman got the opportunity to raise awareness about poverty on the regional and national stage, she jumped at it — even if it did involve posing in a bathing suit.
Last month, Stephens was crowned Mrs. Kansas, and will compete for the national title later this year (the contest is, as you may have guessed, like the Miss America pageant, but for married women). The 32-year-old is using the platform to shine a light on family homelessness in America. It's a topic she knows about from experience.
She was raised like a lot of her clients at the Lawrence Community Shelter: without a lot of money. Stephens, along with her mother and younger sister, lived in Section 8 housing or with her grandparents. Her father, who was mostly out of the picture, died when she was 9.
Unlike her classmates, Stephens never wore name-brand shoes or went to concerts. She got free lunches, and used food stamps, which back then were more like actual stamps, making it all the more embarrassing when it came time to pay the cashier.
She never really realized she was poor until her tween years. That's around that time she invited some girls from school to her house, which had no sink in the bathroom or carpeting. "The next day they went to school and told everyone …," Stephens said.
Upon her graduation, she wanted to leave Lawrence and never look back. She worked in Johnson County as a cosmetologist. But after divorcing her husband, who was then serving in Iraq, and with kids to support, she decided it was time to go to college.
She enrolled at Kansas University, and got a job at Women's Transitional Care Services, now the Willow Domestic Violence Center. Domestic violence was another issue she had personal experience with, having seen it directed at her mom and aunt. Working with survivors of domestic and sexual abuse was "incredibly empowering for me," said Stephens, who told herself: "This is what I need to be doing."
Stephens soon met her current husband, who also worked in social services, and got hired at the local homeless shelter.
When the Salvation Army closed its overnight shelter in 2009, local homeless families were suddenly left with nowhere to go. That's when the Lawrence Community Shelter opened its doors to parents and children. Stephens designed the family program herself.
She left the shelter for two years to work at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center but came back last May, in time for the shelter's move to a newer, larger facility in southeast Lawrence. The shelter, under Stephens' direction, has expanded its family programs, which focus on identifying residents' strengths and using them to advance their life goals. Since Stephens' return to the center, she has helped eight families find permanent housing.
A natural beauty, truth-teller
At the Welk Theatre in Branson, Mo., on March 2, Stephens figured she had blown it. A judge asked if she thought the swimsuit competition was sexist. Stephens was, as usual, brutally honest. "Yes," she answered. "Obviously we're not over this as a society."
Maybe the judges appreciated her honesty, because she won all three phases of the contest. She was Mrs. Kansas. She had her platform.
Since then, she's been appearing at local events and spreading the word about family poverty. She plans to tour homeless shelters across the state, picking up ideas she might be able to implement back in Lawrence. "I try to be realistic," she acknowledges, "I'm not going to change the world. I'm not going to solve homelessness. Small, attainable goals is what we focus on."
Stephens aims to be that tiny slice of positivity in people's otherwise turbulent lives that gives them a different view, "that makes them believe in themselves," she said.
If you're interested in scheduling Mrs. Kansas for a public appearance, call pageant coordinator Teresa Foli at (660) 247-2395 or send her an email.
She also wants to overcome the ignorance many American have about poverty and homelessness. She once spoke at an elementary school where afterward a woman told her, "You're just so poised and pretty, I can't believe that you grew up poor."
Stephens was floored.
"I'd like to be able be to change that mentality: that if you're poor, you're going to be that way forever," she said.
Robert Kortlucke, a KU master-of-social-work student who has been interning alongside Stephens since December, said people need to be aware that homelessness can happen to anybody. And there's no one better to carry that message than Stephens. He said she does an "amazing job" at the shelter. "She's the entire program. She wears all the hats."
Stephens could get an even bigger pulpit from which to tell the story of homelessness if she's named Mrs. America this August in Tucson, Ariz. Until then, she wants to inform not only the general public, but also people who are themselves struggling and unable to envision a way out.
"I would like to show folks that they don't have to continue life the way it's been laid out for them," she said. "They can make changes in their lives and truly dream big and do something that means something to them."
They can, in other words, be Elizabeth Stephens.