Finding purpose

By Merrill Wolf

RALEIGH, N.C. – Gloria Lowe Sawyer dresses for success.

On a recent morning, she wore a black suit and pink ruffled blouse, with coordinating necklace, lipstick and high heels. Long, elaborately decorated fingernails completed the stylish picture.

Sawyer’s meticulous grooming may be partly due to knowing she is a role model for hundreds of women who, though they may lack her elegant attire and proud bearing, share with her something deeper — a troubled past, marred by alcohol, drugs and other misfortunes.

These women — several of whom joke and work with Sawyer in her southeast Raleigh office — hope one day to have something else in common with her — the achievement of having turned their lives around.

Since 1997, Sawyer has given women who have made bad choices a second chance.

At Mission House for Women and its companion program, Almost There, in Cary, Sawyer welcomes up to 16 determined women at a time into a transitional home, where they prepare to reintegrate into society. Some come from prison. Others are referred by social-service or other programs.

“It doesn’t matter to me what you’ve done, what color you are, what religion you are,” Sawyer says. “All I want to know is what you’re going to do about your problem.”

Mission House offers residents – who must stay drug- and alcohol-free – a variety of resources for addressing their problems, which may include domestic violence and mental illness.

The women must find jobs and work during the day, returning home for dinner followed by classes and other activities each evening.

There may be a 12-step program on Monday night, for example, a GED class on Tuesday, a spiritual development session on Wednesday and computer training on Thursday.

Gloria Lowe Sawyer

Job: Founder and director, Mission House for Women, and Almost There

Born and raised: Winston-Salem, N.C.

Age: 45

Education: Will graduate from Shaw University, May 2005, bachelor’s degree

Family: Married to Ronnie Earl Sawyer; 1 son, 3 stepdaughters, 1 grandchild

Hobbies: Going to movies and flea markets with husband

Favorite book: Anything by Maya Angelou

Inspiration: Maria Spaulding, director, Wake County Human Services

“I’m a firm believer that idle time is the devil’s workshop,” Sawyer says.

Such structure can be hard, residents say, but they know they need it. Sheila Morris has been at the Raleigh home for six months. She says Sawyer’s tough-love reputation initially scared her off, but eventually she was ready.

“Sometimes I don’t like to take suggestions,” Morris says. “She gives me that extra push.”

Sawyer’s own checkered past makes that push easier to take. “If she can do it, I know I can do it,” Morris says.

Sawyer, who was adopted, says she grew up with everything she needed but felt empty.

Looking for somewhere to fit in, she began smoking marijuana and cutting classes, then gave birth to a son at age 17. Fueled by drugs and alcohol, her life spiraled out of control until 1991.

“I got sick and tired of … wanting to stop, hurting myself and hurting my family,” Sawyer says. “I needed to make some profound changes in my life.”

She moved from Winston-Salem to Raleigh, got a job, and eventually became a substance-abuse counselor, working in Johnston and Wake counties. In 1996, she used all her savings to start Mission House for Women.

“I stepped out on faith,” she says, believing that, through her troubled past, God had prepared her to help others.

Now, she says, “I am fulfilling my purpose in life, to reach out and to help people become successful members of society.”

To date, nearly 200 women have “graduated” from the programs. Sawyer claims an 85 percent success rate.

But – numerous awards for civic service and stylish finery notwithstanding – she never loses sight of where she’s been.

“I don’t want to forget where I came from,” she says.

For information about Mission House for Women’s “Women Celebrating Women” conference and fundraiser in Raleigh, April 14-16, featuring North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, call (919) 829-0806.

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