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Sarah's Place: Transforming Lives

by Fred D. Baldwin

It's Monday morning, and Sarah's Place Women's Resource Center hums with friendly activity. Several women of widely varying ages chat in the kitchen before their adult education class begins. A man stops in to report encouraging news on his job hunt. A driver education instructor drops by for just long enough to verify a schedule and—his main reason for coming—to deliver a vase of fresh flowers. A couple comes in to show off hand-carved, brightly painted walking canes and talk about marketing folk art.

Sarah's Place, located in Sandy Hook (Elliott County), Kentucky, defines itself as "a one-stop resource center." It offers, or plans to offer, an expanding cluster of services—literacy training, computer courses, access to legal services, driver education classes, transitional housing, and a certified nursing assistant course. In its roughly seven months of operation, it has served well over a hundred Elliott County residents (most, but not all, of them women) and helped about two dozen people find jobs or go back to school.

The center's overall mission is to nurture individual worth and self-respect, especially for women and children who have been the victims of "physical, emotional, intellectual [or] spiritual violence." Its founder and director is Sister Sarah "Sally" Neale, a certified family nurse practitioner and a member of a teaching-oriented Catholic order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Another member of the order, Sister Maritia Smith, serves as the center's program coordinator and guides what the public assistance system calls "life skills" classes.

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) helps support the center's welfare-to-work efforts. Elliott County, an economically distressed county that is one of Kentucky's (and the nation's) poorest, has a population of only about 6,500, a poverty rate of 38 percent, and an official unemployment rate of 11 percent. Its economy has never been based on coal or timber; historically, the main cash crop has been tobacco. There is almost no local industry; most of those who are employed commute to jobs outside the county.

Sandy Hays, Elliott County's deputy director for emergency management and a member of the Sarah's Place board, acknowledges that it's currently very hard to find jobs for people in or near Elliott County. That's going to change, she predicts. Projects are under way to make the area's natural beauty more accessible, both for tourists and for students of environmental science. The county is also slated to become the site of a new state prison, which will create up to 500 jobs.

Hays sees Sarah's Place as playing a crucial role in preparing local residents, especially women, to get as many of the new jobs as possible and to hold on to them. It's not just a matter of the services Sarah's Place offers, she emphasizes, as important as those are. It's a matter of helping people realize their own competence.

An Environment for Change

Almost everyone these days talks about "self-esteem." So do Hays, Neale, and Smith, but they use the words to mean a capacity to change one's life. Classes at the center include not only obviously practical topics like budgeting, resume writing, and interview skills, but also ways of developing self-awareness, like keeping a journal.

"You don't force people to change," Neale says. "You create an environment where change is possible."

Outside the flow of the physical action in Sarah's Place is a small parlor-like room furnished only with a few comfortable rocking chairs made from walnut by a local craftsman. It's called the "reflection room." It's a place, Smith explains, where those who come to the center can "sit and talk, sit and journal, or just plain sit."

"It's here in this room," says Mary Lewis, sitting in one of those walnut rockers, "that I decided I needed a life change."

Lewis admits to feeling some anger when a letter from the Elliott County, Kentucky, public assistance office told her to report to Sarah's Place for a class in "life skills." She'd worked in a sewing factory, borne two daughters, and, for ten years, nursed a disabled husband. What right did anyone have to lecture her about life skills? She also admits that she was "scared to death." A hard life had nearly ground her down; she felt unable to handle anything else.

As matters turned out, no one lectured Lewis, and she says that she both learned new skills and encountered only respect for skills she'd demonstrated. Today she works at Sarah's Place as a receptionist.

Looking Ahead

As time goes on, Sarah's Place promises to be busier still. Renovations of the main building, which is approximately a century old, are now under way. Courses in basic computer skills and basic office skills have already been conducted, as has a certified nursing assistant course, and more computers (bought with an ARC grant) will go into use as soon as space is available. Sarah's Place already has a World Wide Web site (

The center is coping with two serious obstacles that face welfare-to-work efforts in almost all rural areas: inadequate resources for transportation and child care. Day care is available for women taking classes at Sarah's Place. The center is also able to help clients with transportation through use of a donated car.

What is now a basement area will include facilities for a wellness center, which will provide information and workshops on health issues like smoking cessation and stress management. Neale is planning a gardening project to match Sarah's Place clients with older people who own garden plots they can no longer manage. "Everyone will get a cut of the profits in produce," Neale explains. There are also plans to encourage women to create micro-businesses.

Renovation is also nearly complete on small rooms within the center that can accommodate up to four women (or a woman and several children) in crisis situations.

Whatever new functions Sarah's Place takes on, the center around which its activities flow will continue to be found in the reflection room.

"Sarah's Place is a place of hope and peace," says Smith. "It gives people a time to reflect and move on with their lives. We're outsiders. We'll always be outsiders, but we recognize that there are so many gifts here. People are resilient. We minister to them and learn from them."

Hays says that the "outsider" label is true only in a technical sense.

"This part of eastern Kentucky," she says, "has long attracted people who want to come in and do us a favor. Sally [Neale] didn't do that. It was refreshing to have somebody who'd work with us, not tell us what to do."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Transformed Lives: Sarah's Place Success Stories

by Sister Sarah Neale


Today she has a full-time job at Chef America, a food manufacturer. She says she will always be grateful for the time at Sarah's Place. After three months on welfare, her self-esteem had already suffered. Now she has her first paycheck, and says it is wonderful to think bills will be paid on time again. She plans for a better future for herself and her family.


"I have always loved people, loved bringing comfort to them. My dream was to be a nurse's aide, and work with older folks. Now I can, praise God. I am overflowing with love. I feel I have a lot to give to others now."


"I really love working with older people. They keep thanking me, and telling me how much they love me. It is really wonderful. I get my first paycheck this Friday, and Saturday is my little girl's birthday. I am going to have a wonderful birthday party for her. I am so grateful and happy."