In memory of Theresa Stafford: A relentless advocate for children

By Debra R. Messick, Special to Dorchester Banner
Posted 12/26/23

“There are not enough words to express what she has done for our city.”

– Chad Green, New Beginnings Youth and Family Services

CAMBRIDGE – Dr. Theresa …

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In memory of Theresa Stafford: A relentless advocate for children


“There are not enough words to express what she has done for our city.”

– Chad Green, New Beginnings Youth and Family Services

CAMBRIDGE – Dr. Theresa Stafford’s impressive resume was replete with professional accomplishments, notably as Dorchester County School Board member and executive director of New Beginnings Youth and Family Services.

But well beyond those impressive titles, Stafford is being remembered throughout Cambridge for her tireless dedication, tremendous vision and fighting spirit on behalf of countless youngsters.

As news broke on social media shortly after she passed away Dec. 14, messages of grief, gratitude and praise immediately bubbled up - spontaneous and heartfelt tributes from the many whose lives she had continued to touch and inspire, even as she courageously fought her own battle with cancer.

In early October, Stafford celebrated her 40th wedding anniversary to Lewis Stafford Sr. On Nov. 30, she was surrounded by family celebrating her “70th journey around the sun.”

Upon her passing, while grieving her loss, daughter Norma Bates posted on Facebook, “It’s such a blessing to have gained a warrior ancestor today. RIP Mom.”

Among numerous officials remembering Stafford and extending condolences to her family, County Council Vice President and District Five Representative Mike Detmer paid special tribute to her, recalling their interactions as fellow elected officials, times he’d covered her as a journalist and also shared insightful conversations with her about difficult news stories.

“Anyone who had the opportunity, as I did, to see her working with the kids, would recognize that she had the heart and spirit of a lioness,” Detmer said, who poured her heart into her community, the Greenwood Avenue corridor, an area especially challenged with poverty and lack of opportunity.

“She also was a tremendous inspiration to the people she worked with, who are dedicated to continuing her good work,” he added.

Cambridge Second Ward Commissioner Lajan Cephas said of Stafford that she was “a fighter for all those without a voice,” who was “truly doing God’s work,” as well as an ever supportive, always honest mentor. “She not only knew what needed to be done, but where to go and how to get it done,” Cephas added.

As executive director of New Beginnings Youth and Family Services, she was charged with planning and developing educational, recreational and cultural activities for after-school and summer enrichment programs. She also coordinated activities for families living in subsidized housing in the under-resourced, at-risk neighborhood.

In the executive director role, Stafford went above and beyond job description boundaries, bringing her special creativity and sense of mission to expand the horizons of and opportunities for the youngsters, and to address issues plaguing residents of one of the city’s most at-risk neighborhoods.

She arranged numerous far-reaching field trips designed to introduce them to a world of possibilities, inspiring them to dream of what might seem beyond their reach.

Last summer’s program theme, “I can be what I cannot see,” began at the Eastern Shore Innovation Center, where the children met three local entrepreneurs, including Mercy Pinder, who grew up in their same apartment complex and became a best-selling author, and Amanda Kidd, Four Eleven Kitchen and Beat the Rush Delivery founder.

Other trips took them to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Salisbury University, the Maryland Science Center and NASA’s Wallops Island Center, Dorchester County Courts and the State Legislature in Annapolis, and fun outings to Ocean City with horseback riding at nearby Visionquest Morningstar Youth Academy.

The Groove City Black Heritage & Culture Group, which had honored Stafford at its Night of Educational Excellence Gala, paid tribute to her on Facebook, writing, “Your contributions to our community will never be forgotten. Your unwavering passion and dedication to educating children have left an indelible mark on all of us.”

Applauding her forthright and fearless style, the group noted that “she walked into any room unafraid and ready to challenge anyone to take action - as she would say, ‘Put their money where their mouth is.’ Or, as the young people like to say, ‘Stand on business.’”

Calling her “a leader, an ally and a friend,” Stafford was lauded as “a true champion for our community, tirelessly fighting for a better educational system” whose legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of all those whose lives she touched.

Devoted staff member Chad Green, who worked side by side with Stafford at New Beginnings, also took to Facebook to communicate her profound sense of loss and immense gratitude.

“Today I lost my sister, mentor and my heart. You will never know how much Dr. Theresa Stafford loved her community. She fought to her last breath fighting for rights education and success for all of us. Yes, her delivery wasn't at times accepted by all, but you had to accept her truth. I salute you and I understand my assignment. New Beginnings will live on in your name.”

Cambridge First Ward Commissioner Laurel Atkiss, who has been leading art activities at New Beginnings, posted pictures of the youngsters enjoying and taking pride in their final 2023 project, a tissue paper sun catcher ornament, and invoked Stafford’s lasting legacy.

“Thank you, Dr. Theresa Stafford, for this program, for leading me here, and for the steps you have paved for all of us to follow to invest in our community and our future.”

Technically, Stafford had already retired from two exceptional careers in the military and education.

Serving 22 years in the Maryland Army National Guard, reaching the rank of SFC, Stafford's final duty assignment had been as a Maryland Military Academy instructor teaching non-commissioned officers to be effective classroom teachers.

Her public-school teaching career spanned 37 years, beginning as business education instructor and cheerleading coach with St. Mary’s County Public Schools in 1975-76.

From 1976-77, Stafford assisted the Maryland State Department of Education’s Eastern Shore Migrant Program in Salisbury.

From 1977 to 1991, Stafford joined Dorchester County Public Schools as business education instructor and department chairman, special education instructor and guidance counselor for Alternative School Students at Cambridge South Dorchester High School.

From 1992 to 2014, she served as Caroline County Public Schools supervisor of College and Career Readiness. In 2004, she also earned her Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Administration from Wilmington University, traveling five hours to attend classes after working full time.

Another local educator, Susan Lester, who traveled to and from courses and studied with Stafford, recalled that the two, who met when they both started the doctoral program, received their diplomas on the same day.

Lester credited Stafford with continually setting the bar high, pushing her to reach her goal despite their tremendously busy schedules.

“She needed a quiet place to study, as her home was always a full house, so I provided that. She, in return, always encouraged me to keep going,” Lester said. The two remained friends over the years, with Stafford even helping Lester’s husband find solutions for veteran-related issues.

After retiring in 2014, Stafford embarked on a four-year paralegal program at Anne Arundel Community College. Then, starting in 2016, she began working as a consultant for Thrive@25, the University of Maryland School of Social Work Institute for Innovation and Implementation. That same year she stepped into the role of executive director for New Beginnings.

Always focused on making a difference for children, in November 2022 she ran for and won an elective spot on the Dorchester County Board of Education. Even as she coped with cancer, she continued shining a spotlight on issues for parents, urging them to stay involved.

The community was invited to a Celebration of Life at Cambridge South Dorchester High School Saturday, Dec. 23, following the viewing.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in support of nonprofit New Beginnings Youth and Family Services, 522 Greenwood Ave., Cambridge MD 21613, or via cash app;$begin4kids.

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