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.”