Since she was a child, Wanda Steptoe knew she wanted to help people.
“I grew up in a very large, very close-knit, loving family,” Wanda says. “One of my cousins had Down’s Syndrome — and life for people with developmental differences wasn’t like it is today. They recommended putting him in an institution — but my family wouldn’t hear of it. He was raised just like the rest of us.” That, Wanda says, helped her cousin excel, achieving many things doctors and experts said were out of reach, including getting and holding down a job.
With an eye on helping others with special needs, Wanda majored in special education and, after graduating, taught high school for three years. After that, she shifted into a role supporting adults in a residential setting before moving to Washington, DC in 1983 and joining Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children, where she was the Residential Teacher and later promoted to Director of Residential Programs.
“During this journey, I’d always see younger women walking down the street pushing strollers — and really struggling, you could see it,” Wanda explains. “They were trying to raise their children without the support I had — without a supportive family all around. I really developed a heart for those women.”
Later, she moved into a similar role at Covenant House Washington, where she established a shelter for homeless youth and a transitional housing program for young mothers experiencing homelessness.
Soon, that heart evolved into a unique role at New Endeavours by Women, where Wanda became — and continues to serve as — Executive Director. New Endeavours partners with women experiencing homelessness, providing a nurturing, supportive, and protective environment so they create new futures and truly recognize their worth. When Wanda joined the team 15 years ago, New Endeavours had three programs. Now, they have seven.
“Homelessness has changed a lot over the years,” Wanda explains. “Thirty years ago, women were homeless because they got sick and lost their job. They didn’t have a nest egg and didn’t have family to support them. Now, though, there are often co-occurring issues we need to work through, together. Maybe she’s suffering from trauma, has mental health issues [or struggles with] substance abuse. Our case managers assess their needs and help the women prioritize the steps they need to take to move out of homelessness.”
Hers is, truly, a hands-on approach. New Endeavours, Wanda says, embraces “the power of small,” leveraging their size to be more relationship-driven. Wanda and her staff all have strong interpersonal relationships with the women they serve and that, she notes, is a significant draw.
“I don’t think I’d be a successful Executive Director if I worked for a huge organization,” she says. “It just doesn’t fit who I am. I love the administrative side of my job, but I need to feel connected to the people I serve. I want to have relationships with these ladies. I want to make a difference in their lives.”
During its 30-year history, New Endeavors has served more than 3,000 women and children. “The vast majority of them have been successful and that is because we have an incredible program team that is committed to those we serve,” Wanda says. “They are willing to go beyond their position descriptions to provide the best support possible.”
Many of those women, she adds, often come back and acknowledge the support, love, and lessons learned.
“What makes my heart smile is when one of our ladies moves into her own place — to see the sense of accomplishment and pride — or when children in our family program improve their grades as a result of participating in our Youth Enrichment Program, YEP! Two were accepted in colleges last year. Seeing women come in without hope and take small steps that help realize their potential is priceless.”
Looking ahead, Wanda and her team are focused on continuing their core objective: helping homeless women move beyond where they are right now, and into that next step of their lives. To do that, she says, they’ll continue to meet each woman where she is, with an eye on their unique needs. We will continue to look at lessons learned and best practices to ensure we provide the best services possible. “There’s no cookie-cutter approach here,” Wanda adds.
There’s also no cookie-cutter approach when it comes to driving powerful change like Wanda has and continues to do.
“When it comes to your career and your path, it’s about following your heart and knowing who you are,” she says. “A lot of times people have expectations — your parents want you to do certain things or you think you should do certain things. But what’s most important is knowing who you are — knowing your heart and what’s inside you. When you can really listen and follow that path, you’ll have the most satisfaction and be most successful.”