A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Everyday Heroes: ‘How can you change a life
in three weeks?’ Just ask Jane Stephenson

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

This story is taken from Steve Flairty’s 2008 book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes. Five years later, Jane Stephenson is still an integral part of New Opportunity School for Women and the progam has started a new outreach at Bluefield College, Bluefield, Va., and in 2014 another in Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn. In 2012, she published a book, Changing Lives in Appalachia, on the occasion of NOSW’s 25th Anniversary of the Berea location. For more information about the work, click here.

Jane Stephenson

Jane Stephenson

When Jane Stephenson was growing up in the tiny mountain town of Banner Elk, N.C., she was painfully aware that girls, she explained, “were not allowed to do things boys did. We were not supposed to be smart, and because of that I got angry a lot. At 10 years old, I guess I was part of ‘early feminism.’”

She did have a unique advantage in living in Banner Elk, however, and it inspired her efforts to found the successful New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW), first located in Berea, in 1987. NOSW’s mission is to “to improve the educational, financial and personal circumstances of low-come, middle-aged women of southcentral Appalachia and Kentucky,” and to date, over 500 women have benefited from the three-week residential program.

Banner Elk fortunately had a beacon of higher learning that made all the difference for Stephenson in those early years.

“Since Banner Elk had a small college, Lees-McRae, it opened up opportunities that many places in Appalachia didn’t have,” she said. “I took piano lessons from a college teacher, and I could check out books from the library.” The college often had special programs in the arts that were enriching culturally for those in the community. “We were very fortunate to have things that a lot of places in Appalachia didn’t have,” she said.

Lees-McRae College served another vital purpose for Jane. She met John Stephenson, whom she later married. John was to become Berea College’s president, serving from 1984 until his death in 1994.

“John had a deep interest in the study of Appalachia, and he used to ask me questions about it all the time,” she said. “I remember when I was real young, a girl made fun of my accent, but I didn’t even realize I was from Appalachia.”

John accepted a teaching and administrative position at the University of Kentucky, and it was difficult for Jane to leave her native state. “I really didn’t want to go to Kentucky at all,” she said. She took courses at UK as she was raising three children, and in 1976 she received a master’s degree in higher education administration. UK hired her to open a new office to advocate for nontraditional students, a group typically much older than other students. Their individual needs were challenging.

“Lots of them were divorced, with no money and going through transitions. They needed things like test-taking and study skills, so we provided them workshops to help,” she said.

Just when things were getting settled in Jane’s life, another family move occurred. John became Berea College’s seventh president. She kept busy with duties related to John’s position for a while, but one day got a call from noted Kentucky writer and friend Gurney Norman. He had a significant question for Jane.

“He wanted to know if Berea College had a program that could help a friend of his gain confidence, how to get a job, and improve her financial condition,” she said. “She was experiencing an unexpected divorce and would soon have to support herself and two children.”

A few days later, John was contacted by the Educational Foundation of America, in California, that had previously donated to Berea College for an innovative program. They asked President Stephenson if the school had any new and different programs that needed funding, and with a good proposal done promptly, they would consider funding it. That got the ball rolling, and Jane took control.

“I got on the phone to call together as many people on campus I could think of who could help design a program for women,” she said. An enthusiastic brainstorming meeting in the Stephenson living room followed. Though not all questions were answered, wide support to use the college’s resources was offered and soon a proposal was sent to the foundation. In December of 1986, the program was granted $14,000 per year for two years—exactly what the group requested. Jane soon was successful in receiving more funds from other individuals and small groups to start the project.

On June 7, 1987, 12 of the 14 women selected for the inaugural three-week program were in attendance. The schedule was packed and included: a tour of the library and the Appalachian Museum, an Appalachian literature course, a seminar on resource management, classes on job search skills, self-esteem, and computer basics. The group tapped into activities on campus such as author readings and folk dancing. “Weekends were spent touring Shakertown, Fort Boonesboro and traveling to Lexington to a conference for women,” Jane said, “and we held events for the families of the women on the day of graduation.”

Today, NOSW is going strong. The organization conducts two three-week sessions per year in Berea and one in North Carolina, operating with annual budgets of $275,000 at Berea and $50,000 at Banner Elk. A total of 546 women have completed the sessions, along with several hundred others who have taken NOSW-related, life-enhancing workshops. Of the graduates of the three-week sessions, 75 percent are now employed, 27 have completed bachelor’s degrees, with seven pursuing or achieving master’s degrees. Many have received various certifications in professional fields.

The program that Gurney Norman hoped existed for his friend was created through Jane Stephenson’s leadership and perseverance. The people who have gone through NOSW are full of gratitude.

“I finally found myself and who I am,” one graduate said, “living each day to the fullest and making my world a better place.”

In her 1995 book, Courageous Paths: Stories of Nine Appalachian Women, a sampling of graduates shared their own incredibly uphill life battles, who, with the support of NOSW, became over-comers. It inspired Norman to say, in the introduction: “If these women were ever at one time vulnerable to the manipulations of others, these narratives show that that time is now over.”

Stephenson’s NOSW hit another jackpot in recognition and fund-raising in 2003 when she was selected as an “Oprah Angel” and won the “Use Your Life Award.” The organization rerceived $100,000 and Stephenson appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

“Oprah came down into the audience to give me the award, give me a hug, and for me to thank her in a wobbly voice with tears in my eyes,” Stephenson said. The NOSW website, which normally received about 50 hits per week, got 12,000 the week after the national TV appearance. The story of the program was now getting “out there” like no time before, and that would make the next progression doable.

Largely because of the vision of Stephenson, Frank Taylor and the $50,000 gift from the Kellogg Foundation, the program was expanded to the campus of Lees-McRae College at Banner Elk, starting in July of 2005. The Lees-McRae NOSW has since graduated 33 women and, says Stephenson, “is becoming known all over North Carolina.”

People have asked Stephenson the question, “How can you possibly change a life in three weeks?” She has a ready answer.

“I can’t tell you exactly but I can tell you that I have observed it happen, time after time, year after year” she said. “What we can all learn is that even a short-term intervention in a life can lead that person toward success.”

Jane Stephenson started thinking that way when she was a 10-year-old growing up in Banner Elk. She never stopped.


Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and author of five books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and four in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author, including his most recent, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. He will soon be a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau. Contact Steve at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

For more from Steve Flairty, click here.

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