An Interview with Sandra Lewis

As a child, Sandra Lewis dreamed that she would one day grow up to be a dancer or train horses.  She initially became a certified Interior Designer, before deciding this was not the career path she wanted to follow.  Her faith guided her down a different path, and she realized she wanted to help homeless and impoverished women and children. 

Growing up in a tight-knit, safe neighborhood in Virginia next door to her best friend, Lewis had no knowledge that homelessness existed within or beyond her protective community.  “It was a different day and time,” she said.  “In the 40's and 50's, you took care of your neighbors.  My family was very compassionate for others.  I never saw any evidence of homelessness in my community.”  Now, she wonders if we are more aware today of the problems that exist among the poor, or if these problems have escalated.

After moving to Coatesville and witnessing poverty firsthand, Lewis’s empathy for the poor grew.  She had always felt that her faith and beliefs held her true, and she was disturbed by the lack of shelter for homeless women and children.  When she became president of the Board of Directors for the Coatesville YWCA (currently the CYWA) in 1981, Lewis saw and heard about many women sleeping outside and in garages, tents, and campers, and wanted to do something about it.  In 1983, she founded the YWCA Emergency Shelter for Women and their Children.  There, she was responsible for supervising case managers, providing individual counseling, establishing a hotline for women in crisis, soliciting funding, and many other projects. 

Three years after founding the YWCA Shelter, Lewis delivered a speech in which she implored the general public to become more aware of the homeless women of Chester County.  Lewis laid out the facts about single mothers trying to survive and support their children on wages that fell below the poverty level, with little to no support from the community.  She said this was “fast becoming a critical situation,” and “answers will not be found until the issues, questions, and situations are posed.”  Concluding her speech, Lewis stated, “dare to look with me into the faces of our homeless women and children, may it haunt us all, comfortable Americans, until we are compelled to help ease the pain.”  A year later, Lewis founded and served as acting director for Bridge of Hope.

In 1998, Lewis received her Master of Human Services Degree from Lincoln University, where she graduated among the top ten in her class.  Two years later, Lewis became the Director of Counseling for the Domestic Violence Center of Chester County, where she currently works.  Lewis says that every day is different.  Sometimes there is a crisis she must assist with, and sometimes she is able to celebrate when someone finds safe and affordable housing.

Lewis considers her coworkers to be superior mentors, and enjoys the shared wisdom she receives from working with them each day.  She also names Mother Theresa as a great influence in her life, quoting, “You can do what I cannot do.  I can do what you cannot do.  Together, we can do great things.” 

Lewis believes that the women she helps suffer from multiple layers of a complex trauma.  Since there is not a simple cause, there is no simple solution.  And while she is well aware of the amount of women living in poverty and unstable housing in Chester County, many others within the community have no idea.  “It’s not that they don’t care,” she says.  “They just don’t see it.”  Being so immersed in the struggles of these women, Lewis says she experiences “vicarious traumatization.”  Even though she has not faced the traumas that they have suffered, Lewis empathizes so deeply that she sometimes feels traumatized herself.  Knowing the dangers of this world, she fears for the safety of her own children and grandchildren.  Despite this, Lewis feels confident that she has done the best she can do to help those in need. 

For others who are interested in beginning this kind of career, Lewis advises, “If you’re looking for monetary reward, you won’t find it here.  This is a place to give.”  While her job is emotionally challenging, Lewis believes that “life is all in your perceptions, in how you view a situation.”  Lewis views each day as an opportunity to give love and to be loved.

Beyond work, Lewis enjoys a rich life.  She takes pride in being a confidante for her grandchildren, and relishes every moment she is able to spend with them.  Her parents provided for her a stable and supportive home life, and family means everything to her now.  Witnessing the wisdom of her children has been one of the the greatest successes of her life.  She is also an active participant in her church community and loves to spend time gardening.  Currently, she is learning French from a CD in her car.  If she could choose anyone to play her in the movie about her life, Lewis would pick Sandra Bullock, because she enjoys many of her movies and they share a name.  She would also choose to be a horse if she could be any animal, because she grew up around horses.

When asked by friends and family if she is planning to retire, Lewis responds, “what else would I do?  This is not just a job.  This is a calling.  It’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Roberta Machin

Chester County's 8th Annual Landlord Forum

On May 22, Decade to Doorways collaborated with the Pennsylvania Link to Aging and Disability Resources to host a forum for approximately 75 landlords in and around Chester County, called "Healthy Tenants, Happy Landlords."  Experts spoke about Hoarding, Bed Bugs, and Lead and Mold Remediation.  Organizer Elizabeth Doan, Coordinator for the Link, hoped to foster new relationships between landlords and service providers in order to support low-income tenants within Chester County.

Annie Amoon Richard, Certified Professional Organizer for Amoon’s Custom Organizing, spoke first on the topic of hoarding.  She defined hoarding as a disorder in which a person has difficulty discarding, which leads to an accumulation of stuff that prevents normal use of space.  People who suffer from this disorder generally feel emotional attachment to their belongings, and experience distress due to feelings of responsibility and a fear of waste.  Most individuals who hoard are over the age of 40, intelligent, perfectionists, and socially isolated.  Unfortunately, Richard explained that hoarding can lead to conflict with loved ones over clutter, health risks, inability to have visitors due to embarrassment, and mental health problems, especially depression.

Many landlords view this situation as irritating due to the increased maintenance hazards and risks of infestation and structural damage.  Richard encouraged landlords to conduct a home visit and speak with their tenants patiently, asking questions and expressing empathy.  She explained that gasping or attempting to remove the tenant’s belongings without permission would lead to negative emotional reactions and increase the tenant’s distress.  It is important to evaluate the situation for safety violations and ask the tenant what kind of supports they need.  As a member of the Philadelphia Hoarding Task Force, Richard hopes to improve outcomes for people who hoard and reduce the catastrophic consequences related to hoarding for residents in the area.

The next speaker, Paul Bello of PJB Pest Management Consulting, led a lively discussion on bed bugs and pest management.  As the author of “The Bed Bug Combat Manual,” Bello is one of the foremost experts on pest control and has removed bed bugs from residential homes across the country.  According to Bello, it is imperative for landlords to establish an effective bed bug management program, which should incorporate chemical treatment, heat (at or above 122 degrees), and a high-powered vacuum.  A bed bug can lay up to 300 eggs in the course of its lifetime, which can last up to six months.

Bello explained that bed bugs are adept at hitchhiking, and so no matter how clean your own living space is, you could easily pick up bed bugs somewhere else and bring them home.  In addition, bed bugs can easily crawl through cracks in the walls of a neighboring apartment or room, spreading the infestation.  Therefore, it is not always the fault of the tenant when bed bugs are discovered at their residence.  Tenants, landlords, and pest management experts must work together in order to ensure the health and safety of all residents.

The final presenter, Ron Gerricke, Director of Field Operations at McCright & Associates, spoke on the topic of lead and mold remediation.  Gerricke focused on the dangers of lead-based paint, which can cause serious health problems if ingested due to its toxicity.  Prior to 1978, there were no federal regulations restricting the use of lead in household paint.  Lead-based paint is easy to identify on windowsills and wooden door frames, where paint may be peeling.  Children and family members could easily inhale dust from the paint or ingest flakes, which would present serious health risks for the household and legal issues for the landlord.  According to Gerricke, it is important to encapsulate all surfaces where paint is peeling, chipping, flaking, or dusting. 

In addition to the valuable information the landlords were able to take home with them, prizes were also given away during the raffle at the conclusion of the forum.  The prizes included a tour of the 6abc news station, gift cards to hardware stores and local restaurants, free consolations, and sports memorabilia and tickets.  Overall, the event was successful in educating landlords on the many ways to keep their tenants healthy and their units clean.

Roberta Machin

Hope Dunn Receives the Governor's Achievement Award

Last year, Hope Dunn moved here from Mississippi with her husband and four children, who were all under four years old.  They had moved to Pennsylvania so that her husband could go to automotive school.  Soon after settling here, her husband lost his job and they faced eviction.  With the family in need of assistance, Hope was referred to the Chester County EARN program.  A week after Hope started at EARN, a judge ruled in favor of their eviction and her husband abandoned the family the same day, taking their vehicle with him.  Hope was left with no transportation, no family in the state, and as a stay-at-home mom, no recent work history.  

In spite of everything, Hope continued to revise her resume and apply for jobs, all the while keeping a smile on her face and caring for her children. She was diligent in contacting every agency to which she was referred.  Assisted by her local CAO and PathStone, she managed to find a car that could fit four car seats.  With the help of PathStone & Department of Community Development, she and her children were able to avoid a shelter and stay in a hotel for three weeks until Rapid Rehousing could find her a new home.  She rented a truck, emptied their storage unit and moved everything, all on her own.  Hope even conquered taking four small children to daycare on a bus when she had never been on mass transit in her life. 

The week after she moved to her new home things moved quickly.  She went on five interviews, took an assessment for a position with a school district and then was offered her dream job as a Catering Sales Coordinator.  Hope has pushed through many obstacles in a very short time.  Instead of being crushed by the stress and pressure of life, she blossomed and grew stronger.  

The PA Department of Human Services recognizes Hope for her perseverance and congratulates her for gaining financial independence for her family through employment.

Chester County WIA