Stella Sanford was born Stella Wolf in New York on November 10, 1900. She was educated in the Ethical Cultural Schools, experimental institutions based on Felix Adler's philosophy of "deed not creed". The schools began with a free kindergarten for children of the New York City slums and then grew to include high school and teacher training. The students all received scholarships from the sponsoring organization. When the schools enlarged to include the children of the sponsoring group, of which the Sanford family was a part, Stella attended. "Always, however, 40 percent of the pupils must be on scholarships," Sanford recalled.
Sanford went on to business college for a semester and then to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) to join a cousin who had enrolled there. There were only 50 women out of a total enrollment of 3000. She majored in biology and public health. Her family's involvement with the Hudson Guild settlement house in New York encouraged a sense of community service, and Stella developed an interest in social work.
It was her marriage to Arthur Sanford that brought Stella to Iowa, and she and her husband arrived in Sioux City in 1921. She was lonely at first, until one day she was stopped on a street corner and asked to give a donation to the Community House. That peaked her curiosity and she decided to investigate. She immediately became involved with the Community House as a volunteer teacher and counselor for a child who could not speak. Before long, she taught a women's class in English and became a member of the board of directors. When the time came to erect the new Community House building on Morgan Street, she was the chairman of the building committee.
At the same time, Sanford became involved in the efforts of Elzona Trosper as she worked with the Booker T. Washington Center on the city's west side. The Booker T. Washington Center was founded in 1933 for Sioux City's black population, though both black and white people in the neighborhood used it.
As the programs of the Booker T. Washington Center continued to grow, Mrs. Sanford saw the need for expanded facilities. She and her husband decided to make a gift from their Stellart Charitable Foundation for the benefit of the Booker T. Washington Center. Stellart Foundation was a fund started by Arthur and Stella Sanford for civic projects of a welfare nature. Their $100,000 gift made the new community center a reality and the Booker T. Washington Center's board of directors unanimously voted to name the new building "The Sanford Center" in honor of the donors. The Sanford Center, constructed at 1700 Geneva Street, was dedicated on June 17, 1951.
The plaque near the entrance of the building is inscribed:
"Given to the people of Sioux City by Stella and Arthur Sanford to further interracial understanding and better community living. The building was inspired by the ideals and work of Mary J. Treglia, administrator, and Elzona B. Trosper, director."
Sanford remained active in the programs for the Community House and the Sanford Center. When the Community House honored Stella for serving 50 years on the board, the director Mabel Hoyt said: "Her intelligence, her compassion, her concern for people, her quiet and gracious personality, have done much for this agency. She has devoted many years of service to the Community House and has been a friend to everyone with whom she worked."
Sanford served for six years on the Sioux City Board of Education. Her husband, Arthur, was a builder who built the Sioux Apartment, the Orpheum Electric Building, Warrior Hotel, Bellevue Apartments, Frances Building, Davidson Building and Insurance Exchange Building.
Sanford and her husband also donated $25,000 to the Mary Treglia Community Center in 1965 to expand the center and create a playground area. Their foundation also donated the funds to create the Stella Sanford Day Care Center and gave the Eppley Auditorium organ to Morningside College.