A pleasant-natured, curly-headed blond child, Jennifer had an aptitude for music early on. “Jenny loved to sing even when she was a little thing,” Naomi Stephens, Jennifer’s mother, said. “She wasn’t exactly outgoing; she loved books. But she was always just a joy to be around.”
Lending her clear soprano voice to a wide-range of school and church choirs, as well as performing on the viola, much of Jennifer’s time from childhood through high school was invested in music. But when—drawn by the desire to be around people of Christian influence—Jennifer selected Baylor University as her college of choice, she decided that education was her calling.
After graduating in 1987, Jennifer married her Baylor sweetheart, Eric Maestas (BA ’84) and joined him in Saudi Arabia, where he was working for U.S. diplomatic services. Not one to live adventures only through her books, Jennifer spent the first year of her married life teaching Saudi first graders at The American School of Dharan.
When Eric was transferred to London, Jennifer took a position at the American School of London library. “I think it was there that Jenny realized how much she loved to be among books,” Naomi said. Even after she and Eric returned home to Texas, Jennifer’s work experience in London continued to intrigue her, compelling her to complete a Master’s of Library Science degree at the University of Texas at Austin in 1995.
Putting her degree to work immediately, Jennifer helped establish a children’s library at a new elementary school in Pflugerville, ordering and collecting books and putting together a new library for the students.
Book collecting took on a whole new purpose in 1998, however, when her daughter Kathleen was born. Eric and Jennifer began purchasing what became hundreds of books, which they consistently read to Kathleen.
No one could have guessed that Jennifer would be given the heartbreaking diagnosis that she had developed leukemia only nine months after her daughter’s birth. Between cancer treatments in Houston, extended hospital stays and eventually a bone marrow transplant, everything in Jennifer’s life changed. Everything, that is, except the cherished tradition of reading to little Kathleen.
“I think what Jenny enjoyed most was introducing that baby to good, good books,” Naomi said. “Jenny battled the cancer all the way. Having Kathleen gave her even more determination to overcome it.”
But in November 2000, Jennifer—beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother and teacher—left this world behind.
Her work to give children access to wonderful books lives on, however, in the form of the Jennifer Stephens Maestas Children’s Collection Library Endowed Fund and the Jennifer Claire Stephens Endowed Scholarship Fund in Education, established by her parents, Marion and Naomi Stephens of Longview.
“Books open the doors of understanding for children and expand their perspective in life,” Marion said. “We both sat down and discussed the idea of establishing this fund and we knew it was something we would feel good about.”
“We wanted to allow Baylor Libraries to purchase some outstanding children’s books to build up the collection,” Naomi said. “I think Jenny would’ve appreciated that.”
Benefiting Baylor’s Central Libraries, the funds will be used to purchase all types of children’s library materials and to support elementary education majors, faculty and others who teach and love children’s literature in the Pre-K to eighth grade level.
“I don’t think there is anything that enriches a child’s life more than reading books,” Naomi said.Jennifer’s passion—through the foresight of her parents—will enrich the lives of countless children and future early childhood educators to come.