By David Blanchette
Josh Sabo was born and raised in Georgia and moved to Springfield to finish college while completing an internship at Central Baptist Church. He later became the youth pastor and then the lead pastor, spending 15 years with the church before accepting a job as the first executive director of the Heartland Continuum of Care.
He and his wife, Emily, have three children. Sabo says he and his family enjoy events downtown, spending time outside, particularly at Lincoln Memorial Garden and Washington Park, and traveling.
You grew up near Atlanta in Covington, Georgia. How did you end up in Springfield? In college at Georgia State University, I think I changed my major about every semester for a while. It was first nonprofit management, then business, and I considered being a middle-school teacher for a while. Going into the ministry sort of branched off from that, because I always enjoyed working with students and young people.
In 2004 I got an internship opportunity at Central Baptist Church in Springfield, so I transferred from Georgia State to University of Illinois Springfield and finished my degree while interning at the church. I split time between Springfield and Lombard, Illinois, working on my masters degree. Once I finished my masters I joined the staff of the church, became lead pastor, and worked there until 2020 when I accepted the Heartland Continuum of Care coordinator position.
What made you decide to apply for the position as the first executive director of the Heartland Continuum of Care? One of the benefits of doing the work I was doing for the church was that I got to see firsthand the way that people were investing their resources and time in trying to make the Springfield community a better place to live.
I was at a point where I was looking for a new way to invest in the community. Around 2019, I heard some of Erica Smiths presentations about using the Housing First model to address homelessness and that really interested me. I reached out to Lisa Clemmons Stott, who was the Downtown Springfield Inc. executive director at that time, and she connected me with John Stremsterfer of the Land of Lincoln Community Foundation. John mentioned that the Heartland position opportunity was one he knew was coming up.
You took the Heartland position a week before the COVID shutdown occurred. What was that like for you? The position had never existed before, so I was stepping into a job that was new in every conceivable way. It was fascinating to learn about what everybody was doing and how they were doing it together, but it was challenging because it was hard to do tours of places and meet with people Everybody was working together in different ways in a true spirit of collaboration and all of the providers were focused on how they could provide services in the healthiest way.
How did you view your role in this brand-new position? My focus out of the gate was to get to know everyone and try to figure out how I could support them, and to figure out what our community was doing and compare that to what was really effective elsewhere.
Theres been a bit of a paradigm shift in our country around how homelessness is addressed.
Because I was relatively new to the field, I had an opportunity to look around the country and figure out what is the most effective strategy, what is really working elsewhere, and how we can incorporate more of those practices here.
What do you wish the community knew about the people and organizations that serve the homeless? One of the things I wish people understood was how much heart and soul goes into offering the programs that do exist in our community, and how challenging that is, because every single organization wishes they could do more. They know there are so many needs that are unmet.
The conversation around homelessness can be very challenging for the community to have. Stigma and some of those things impact the conversation, and I think that can leave the front-line workers and those leading the organizations to feel unsupported.
What is the greatest reward of your job? The most incredible thing is when you get to hear the story of a person who was unhoused who has now entered into a housing opportunity. That is the absolute most rewarding thing, how you hear about a person who was once homeless and is now thriving in a house. Its a beautiful thing, and it makes the heart dance to know all of the people that worked together to help create that opportunity.
Do you think your previous career in the ministry prepared you for your current position? It did in a major way. In the ministry, the goal was to meet people where they were and to walk with them. I pursue this work in the very same way, whether its working with the leader of an organization or with a person who is unhoused. The goal is to meet a person where they are and to help them progress in the best way.
What advice would you give to someone who may be considering a career in your field? Motive is so important when it comes to this work. People who approach this work from an empathetic and compassionate motivation, it really leads to a different level of success. People become case workers or work in shelters not because there is monetary gain, but because at the end of the day they are helping some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
There is a wonderful opportunity for young people in this field, especially as we work to grow programs over the next several years to transform not just individuals lives, but our whole community.