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"We must help save the world"
Interview with Sarah Lewis

by Dick Larson

Sarah Lewis tells how she overcame personal adversity to realize her life's mission - to salvage lives, inspiring creation of the Lewis Center for the Homeless in Riverside, California, USA. 

Sarah Lewis has been a longtime friend to the homeless. Born in Chicago and raised in pre-civil rights Georgia, Sarah has lived for the last 31 years in Riverside, California, a city 40 miles east of Los Angeles. Sarah decided she was chosen by God to clothe, feed, and help find shelter for the abused and homeless. During her years as an employee of Xerox Corporation, she saved her money and used much of it to help others. For years she has single-handedly collected clothing and food, cooked meals and delivered them to the hungry. Sarah has also arranged for needed medical and legal help as well as child-care for those who could not pay for it. Despite her limited education, she spent years as a volunteer leader at group therapy sessions working with addicts, prisoners, and the homeless.

Most recently, Sarah has played a major role in establishing The Lewis Center, a volunteer community center helping the homeless in Riverside County. Dick Larson interviewed her for Share International.

"Iím here on a mission. Iím just trying to do a job", says Sarah Lewis. Her voice strong and her eyes penetrating, she elaborates: "Something inside me is closely connected with God. Itís something I was born with. I recognized it when I was about five years old. A baby would be crying and I would have to wipe the tears away. If the baby was dropping crumbs of food, I would pick them all up and put them in the babyís mouth, even though I was hungry. Thatís how I know Iím on a mission. Itís a blessing I receive from the Lord."

Sarah had a rough time as a child. Her father died when she was four years old leaving her mother alone in Chicago with either 13 or 14 children ó Sarah is not exactly sure of the number. "My mother had so many children she had to ship some of us out. Being the only girl, I was sent by train at age four, along with my baby brother, to my grandmother in Macon, Georgia. I ended up being sent back and forth carrying everything I owned in a paper shopping bag," she says. "Between the two cities, I made it through the seventh grade, but I was badly abused."

She had so many chores to do for her grandparents that she had no time for studying. The teachers would put a dunce cap on her, call her stupid, and punish her in front of the other children. "When you hear for so long that you are stupid, you begin to believe it," Sarah says sadly. During those years Sarah would often go into the back yard to hug and talk to her only friend, a Chinaberry tree.

Desperate to escape the continuous physical and emotional abuse, Sarah Lewis at age 19 married the first young man to show an interest in her. He turned out to be abusive as well and within months she left him too. "Shortly after that Iíd had enough of life and took an overdose of pills. A man I had met found me and helped me get well. I ended up marrying him." Although he treated her well, Sarah was not convinced things could improve. "I still carried my clothes in a paper bag for a while, wondering when I was going to be dumped out on my own again."

Hope enters

The life-saving friend who had become Sarahís second husband was in the military and received transfer orders in 1965 to move to Riverside, California. The free medical services at the Riverside military base became very important to Sarah. "I met Dr Wiltchik, the first doctor to help me. He made me feel like I was alive. I was also referred to Dr Shaw, who took time to try and help me. I had two doctors who were available to me and who would help me grab hold of life." Sarah began to realize that, despite her medical problems and depression, there was a chance to start life anew. She would ultimately become determined to make the same opportunities available to others.

"I met Tom McGrath, an attorney, as a result of a car accident. While Mr. McGrath was eating lunch at the courthouse, he would have me looking up words. He taught me how to read and write." A counselor named Bob Stailback also played a major role in enhancing her sense of gratitude and self-esteem. "These men taught me how to give back the blessings I have received. They taught me that I had to get up and do something, get out and help someone."

Upon the recommendation of Tom McGrath, Xerox Corporation hired her as a quality processor. She worked there for 13 years. "Later, Xerox heard about the volunteer work I was doing in my own time and selected me as one of 20 employees nationwide to be given a one-year paid leave-of-absence to do volunteer work," she says. "The Xerox Community Involvement Program led to my work with the County Probation Department helping those with legal problems, with the State Employment Department helping people find jobs, and with Child Welfare Services."

Overjoyed with the turnabout her life has taken, Sarah beams. "Iím living proof of a miracle. God placed so many of his beautiful soldiers around me that I survived. They told me that I had a job to do and that I would get in touch with that job."

Lewis Center created

Sarah has recently been instrumental in founding a volunteer community center to help the homeless, in particular women and children. It is the first of its kind in Riverside County where there are an estimated 3,000 homeless people. Services provided include food and clothing distribution, medical care focused on womenís health, HIV and hepatitis testing, training and education on public assistance programs, and counseling. The goal is to return people to a healthy, productive life. The center provides self-serve laundry facilities, a private shower, a covered picnic table area, and a fenced play area where children can wait while their parents are receiving medical care or counseling. The facility opened its doors in November 1996.

The Lewis Center Board consists of nine directors with terms ranging from one to three years of service. The people who had the idea to start the center, which Sarahís work inspired, approached Sarah seeking suggestions and her ongoing participation. "When I met with the Board and the City of Riverside," Sarah Lewis explains, "I told them that we had to provide medical services. They told me I was dreaming. I told them it is not a dream, it is real. I said I had been finding clothes and food for the people on the streets, but they also needed medical attention and it wasnít available. I explained that those doors are closed to the homeless. Counseling doors are closed too."

Sarah knows first-hand about the value of counseling and a job. "There are so many people on the street who have gotten into trouble for crimes like drug use. When they go to court they are going to end up doing time in jail or prison. I want to offer them six months of counseling and work with them, provided they will make an effort." She elaborates: "If we have six months, we can help them straighten themselves out and get regular jobs. We will represent them in court for no fee. We are getting attorneys to agree to do that."

Because Lewis has not only worked closely with the homeless but has also been on the streets herself, trying to survive, she knows some of the causes of the suffering. "It comes from growing up being mistreated and from being rejected by society," she says. "It gets you down. Itís hard to pull yourself back up. You need a helping hand from someone who says: ĎI do care. I do love you. Take my hand and walk with me.í We need to let people feel that they are worthwhile and wanted. Iíve been there and I know how it feels when you are not wanted. God did not put us on this earth to be thrown out like trash."

"We could eliminate a lot of the crime and suffering in the world if weíd reach out,"Sarah continues, "but people are selfish and greedy. They have so much and they are not going to give it up. People donít realize that nothing belongs to them. We have lost touch with God and need to get back in touch."

Although she has inspired and helped guide the Lewis Center for the Homeless into its present form, she quickly disavows any ownership rights. "This is not my organization," she states firmly. "A whole team of people jumped in and put this together. Everybody is a volunteer. This is everyoneís plan. Itís Godís plan. It does not belong to one person ó and I had that put into the by-laws. When it was proposed to the city, they wanted to take over the project. But we insisted that it be independent. Thatís very important."

One of Sarahís roles in the Center has been to help convince others to donate what they can. Many have responded to her efforts. The City of Riverside has agreed to donate the land, facilities, and utilities on an indefinite basis. Community churches provide the food as well as the people to prepare and serve a daily hot meal. Parkview Hospital donates medical equipment and medical staff who provide medical care on a daily basis. Riverside Community Foundation donated $50,000 towards medical supplies. Grant requests are being drafted as part of the ongoing funding work.

We need to let people feel that they are worthwhile and wanted. Iíve been there and I know how it feels when you are not wanted. God did not put us on this earth to be thrown out like trash.

The future

Now that the Lewis Center for the Homeless has become a reality, Sarah thinks something similar might be done in many other cities. "Since the recent article [in a local newspaper] was printed, I have had several calls from other cities asking how they could get one started. I believe that this will go national with people working to try and help the homeless with more than food and clothes, but also with legal help, counseling, medical, and job help."

Does that mean she is optimistic about the future? "I am hoping and praying that people will get in touch with God, get in touch with themselves. We canít wait," she says. "We need to do it now."

"All races should take hold of each othersí hands and pull each other up and fight to save the children and the towns. We are starving because of selfishness," she explained. "Itís like we are in a deep hole and the only way out is to build a human ladder. Godís children need to say: ĎHow can we help each other?í ó thatís the way God works, through people. We must help save the world."

From the  January/February 1997 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005