When Kamala Harris gave her acceptance speech in November, for vice president, she recounted words her mother had told her, “You may be the first to do many things but make sure you’re not the last.”
This quote rang close to home to Ambee Stephens, CEO of the EmpowHERment Community Center, a nonprofit organization based in Clearwater.
“I feel like that describes everything about me. I’ve gone through so much,” Stephens said.
She was the first person in her family to attend college, to graduate college and earn her master’s degree. The first in her family to travel outside the country.
“I’m the first, but I want to make sure there’s a foundation for my family. That they know they can come to me. They can join the circle,” she says. “You’re not your upbringing. You’re not your past.”
Stephens is the oldest of six brothers and two sisters. “Being the oldest, you have to wear a lot of hats,” she adds.
With the establishment of the EmpowHERment Community Center in Clearwater, she’s extending that message to all women in the Tampa Bay area community.
A large part of Stephens’ story comes from her experiences with her late father, who she says was addicted to drugs.
She originally wanted to be a lawyer, to help people like him. Her first bachelor’s degree was in paralegal studies from St. Petersburg College. She did some work in the state attorney’s office, but she quickly realized it wasn’t the life for her.
“People were so stressed out. They were overworked and underpaid,” she says. “From my point of view, I was there as a victim advocate.”
Stephens saw another opportunity to follow her advocate dreams and took a job at CASA, the Pinellas County-based domestic violence center, otherwise known as Community Action Stops Abuse.
But before she started that position, her father took his own life.
“It was a really important point in my life. I felt like I showed him my commitment to helping him,” Stephens says. “I couldn’t help my dad and I couldn’t save him, like I wanted to. He had his demons he was dealing with, but I realized that I had friends who were going through similar situations.”
Realizing that her journey might help others she started a Facebook group to help others talk, and cope, with their everyday struggles.
“The group grew from zero to 683 members in a small amount of time,” Stephens says.
She started holding workshops where she would gather a small group of people to discuss self-love, self-care and other topics to help with personal growth.
“I realized how much I could help people,” she says. “We all go through everyday struggles. Sometimes it’s just being stressed out, or having a bad day. I wanted to be able to help these people.”
She finished her second bachelor’s degree in community leadership at the University of Central Florida after falling in love with the nonprofit sector. She went on to get her master’s degree in nonprofit management.
Stephens took the leap and established the EmpowHERment Community Center, with a mission to help women through workshops, advocacy, support groups and more.
In January, the organization will host its first major fundraising gala—hopefully, in person.
“I know what our mission is. I know we are here to help people, everything else will come along in time,” she says. “I want people to know, even as a grassroots organization, we’re still doing great things. Don’t forget the little guys down here. We’ve come a long way.” ♦