Staff spotlight: Sam Stephens


He’s been hit in the head by a hockey puck and he’s taken a job at Youth Rebuilding New Orleans.

For everyone’s sake, let’s hope those two things are unrelated.

Sam Stephens is YRNO’s latest hire. Last month, the 24-year-old resigned from the organization’s board to accept a newly-created staff position as Program Manager. Basically, he’s now a “utility player,” helping out both in the office and on YRNO construction sites.

Stephens is a St. Louis native, but his mother’s side of the family is from New Orleans, so he has a long connection to the city. He spent a good deal of time here both before and after Hurricane Katrina. “It always kind of felt like a second home,” he said during a recent interview. The connection was strengthened all the more when he decided to attend college at Tulane after doing quite a bit of community service in St. Louis. “That’s kind of how I caught the bug to come down here a lot more,” he added. “At least it was a really good excuse to come down here.”

Ultimately, Stephens earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Tulane, but he probably would have wound up in New Orleans, regardless. “I chose the city before the school,” he admitted. “It wasn’t a hard choice. Tulane was very generous. They did give me a nice scholarship offer, so that kind of made it a little easier on the mom. The dad was sold.”

Growing up, Stephens wanted to be a rock musician. He actually became a guitar teacher at a rock-and-roll oriented program for young kids in St. Louis, and is still open to a career as a music educator. He’s done a lot of work in that field in New Orleans. “I’ve always maintained my musicality,” he said.

Given the rock aspirations, you might wonder why Stephens now has an e-mail address of “jazzmansam.” He explained it comes from being in the car with his father, a radio DJ who passed down an appreciation and knowledge of that musical genre. “For my age, I know quite a bit about music that was released 40, 50 years ago,” Sam said, noting that he has picked up more in New Orleans and was basically a jazz studies minor at Tulane.

It was at Tulane that Stephens met YRNO Executive Director Will Stoudt. They lived in the same dorm (Wall Residential College) when Sam was a freshman and Will was a sophomore. Will was the dorm president and had already been working with YRNO, so Sam started volunteering on Saturdays since he needed to log hours in order to maintain his community service scholarship to Tulane. “From there, we became good buddies and eventually he asked me to join the board,” said Stephens. Fellow Tulane student Evan Nicoll was already on the board at that point, and Sam conceded that Evan “may have had a hand” in getting Will to extend the offer.

More recently, after Stephens had earned his Master’s in Disaster and Emergency Management from Tulane, he was looking for full-time employment when the “utility” position at YRNO became available. “Some of the stuff that we need certainly fell under a lot of the stuff that I learned in graduate school, so it was just kind of an easy fit,” he said. “I mentioned it to Will—the need for such a position came up in a few board meetings—and I threw my hat in the ring and here we are.”

Beyond what he’s learned in the classroom and on the YRNO board, Stephens also has previous experience working at a rebuilding organization. He finished his undergraduate studies a semester early, so before starting graduate school he served a half term with AmeriCorps as a Site Supervisor at the St. Bernard Project, which filled his time in between perfectly. “That was great,” he said. “That’s kind of where I cut my teeth with basic house construction, a lot of volunteer management and just a bit of safety consulting as well. I did enjoy my time at SBP.”

The safety consulting came as a result of some concerns he had at SBP. Wanting to leave a lasting mark in the short time he was going to be there, he became something of a “safety specialist,” helping to establish a safety committee that met to discuss policies.

In his spare time, Sam enjoys hanging out with his dog “Hairy” and is an enthusiastic sports fan, which brings up the subject of his allegiance when the Saints play the Rams.

“That’s a great question,” he said, explaining that because his hometown got the Rams in the mid-90s, he wasn’t necessarily brought up on football. “When you grow up in a town like St. Louis, you’re usually a big baseball fan, and so I was kind of reared on that as well as hockey. We’re a big hockey family, so when I came down to New Orleans—and I think you’ll like where this is going—I did kind of sever ties with my Rams. Definitely a Saints fan, although sometimes when the Rams do play the Saints, I will wear my Isaac Bruce jersey just to aggravate some of our friends. Still fits!”

Of course, we can’t finish this profile without getting back to the errant puck. As Stephens mentioned, he comes from a big hockey family. His father drove a Zamboni and his sister works for the St. Louis Blues as an “ice girl.” Anyway, when Sam was a pre-schooler, a deflected slap shot off the stick of Hall of Famer Brett Hull hit him in the forehead, not injuring him too badly, but enough to draw blood. This was in the team’s old arena, before they installed netting above the boards. Toy Zamboni in hand, the young victim was escorted to the locker room where he met several of his favorite Blues players.

And now you know the rest of the story.


To witness some of Sam’s “musicality,” check out the video below of him jamming in the YRNO offices with our friends from Harvard Business School.