There is a framed photograph on a wall in Sarah Tapley’s office.
Jack Steppe is smiling in the picture, and Sarah cannot acknowledge it without returning the smile. It’s almost as if he is looking over her shoulder as she works on the nuts and bolts at Loaves & Fishes, a downtown ministry that began in 1967 with a mission to “serve and improve the quality of life of the poor and homeless.’’
“He hangs on my wall to remind me to treat people the way he treated people,’’ Sarah said. “He had the ability to make them feel special.’’
Steppe was an advocate for helping the less fortunate who had drifted into the margins of society. He became director of Loaves & Fishes in 1995, and the Day Life Center at the ministry’s offices on Broadway now bears his name.
He died of pancreatic cancer in 2002, so not everyone who comes through Sarah’s door is familiar with his legacy.
Some folks have asked if the man in the photograph is her husband. Over time, others have wondered if he was her son. She always chuckles about that.
There have been other reminders that Loaves & Fishes has been a major part of Sarah’s life for the past 30 years as a volunteer, board member and employee.
“I knew I had been here a long time when a little girl from (First Presbyterian Day School) came to help serve lunch with her first-grade class, and her mother said to her, ‘This is Miss Sarah. She was here when I was in the first grade,’ ’’ Sarah said, laughing.
When Sarah retires at the end of June — with plans to “go play grandmother for a little bit’’ — Loaves & Fishes will lose an institution.
“She has held us together in so many ways,’’ said Judy Sexton, director of day services. “She knows the history and how to get things done. She knows the people in town.’’
Sarah didn’t know a soul when she came to Macon nearly 60 years ago. She was a young girl from a broken home, a stranger in a strange land.
Her mother walked out on her father when Sarah was 6 years old, leaving him to care for three small children, including the youngest, who was born with a disability.
She lived for a few years with an aunt in South Carolina, then stayed with a foster family in Augusta. When she was 12, she was given the option of moving in with another foster family or going to Appleton, a home in Macon for teenage girls, run by the Episcopal church.
“I don’t know what made me want to go to an orphanage for girls in Macon, Ga.,’’ she said. “I had never been to Macon. I had no family here. And I don’t know why they left the decision up to me. It was one of those God-guided things.’’
The Appleton Church Home began in the parish hall at St. Paul Episcopal Church in 1870 to serve the orphaned daughters of Confederate soldiers. When Sarah lived at Appleton in the 1960s, the home had about 30 teen girls and was located at St. Francis Episcopal on Forest Hill Road.
“We had a little gray bus, and they would load us up on Sunday mornings and drop us off at the four Episcopal churches,’’ she said.
Women from the four churches — St. Paul, St. Francis, St. James and Christ Church — volunteered at the home and taught classes in everything from music to swimming to art.
“We babysat for them and went on vacations with their families,’’ Sarah said.
The guidance and nurturing of those ladies had a profound influence on Sarah’s lifelong heart for service.
She graduated from A.L. Miller High School for Girls in 1965 and attended business school at Crandall College. Her first job was at the Naval Ordnance Plant. She then became a legal secretary for 23 years.
Her husband was killed in a car accident in 1985. At the time, she was attending St. James, and the priest there, Bob Gibson, suggested she become involved in local mission work.
“He knew I needed a focus in my life to get through that period,’’ she said.
She became involved with Loaves & Fishes, a faith-based collaboration of 10 Macon churches that provides the city’s homeless population (along with others who have housing and food needs) with lunches, groceries, clothing, personal hygiene kits, diapers, shower and laundry facilities, emergency prescription assistance, birth certificates and Georgia IDs.
A few years ago, board member Mary Alice Webb described the mission of Loaves & Fishes to me this way: “We try to empower them, not enable them, and teach them to help themselves,’’ she said. “We’re not giving them designer shoes and T-bone steaks. We’re giving them the things most of us take for granted.’’
That is why the door on Broadway won’t be slamming shut behind Sarah.
“If they’ll have me, I will probably be back as a volunteer a couple of days a week,’’ she said. “I can’t imagine not being involved. There’s not a day that I don’t go home knowing we helped somebody.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy and is the author of nine books. His column appears on Sunday in The Telegraph.