Barbara Sarah — community activist, counselor, social worker, teacher, mentor, beloved friend of many, mother and grandmother — has been selected by Ulster County’s Office for the Aging as this year’s recipient of “Most Outstanding Contribution by a Senior Citizen.” On May 10, she traveled up to Albany, accompanied by her daughter, Ulster County Legislator Jennifer Schwartz Berky, to receive the award. Walker Valley resident James Gregston Greer, retired from the New York Corrections Department, has been awarded Ulster County Senior Citizen of the Year and will also attend the honorary luncheon with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
To all who know her, the award is hardly surprising, though one balks at the “senior citizen” label, given Sarah’s youthful energy, humor, warmth, and infinite capacity for empathy. She refers to herself as a “social artist.” In fact, Sarah — who was born in Brooklyn in 1937 and spent much of her growing up in the borough, attending the High School of Performing Arts and Erasmus High — describes her multitudinous activities as a kind of on-going summer camp. “Every job is like summer camp, which is about games and fun and helping others,” she said.
Social justice has always been important to her (when we met at Hudson Valley Coffee for the interview, she is wearing a Bernie Sanders pin). Sarah credits her “democratic socialism” to her family: her father worked for FDR’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration. “It’s in the genes,” she said. “I worked on the New York City mayoral campaign when I was 15.”
Her activism is multifaceted and has addressed the needs of cancer patients, the incarcerated, teens at risk, and most recently, the dying. She is a co-founder of Circle of Friends for the Dying, a not for profit organization that seeks to raise $300,000 to renovate and operate a house in Kingston that would serve as a residence for two terminally ill people as an alternative to the hospital or a nursing home. There are 25 such homes upstate, but this would be the first in the Hudson Valley.
Circle for Friends for the Dying also sponsors “death cafés,” which consist of “people sitting around talking about living, death and dying. They talk about their experiences and fears, and it’s really enlightening. We have our own band — it’s called the Death Café Troubadours — and we sing songs about life and death.”
The upbeat attitude expressed at the cafés transform a taboo topic into a humanistic quest to embrace the dying, a population — despite the fact it includes all of us in its ranks — that’s been tragically ignored.
Sarah became aware of the difficult issues involving the dying when her son-in-law died of brain cancer four years ago. Much of her activism grows out of her own personal experience and is rooted in her recognition of a problem and fearless engagement to find a solution. Creativity and performance play a key role in her programs for helping people. Sarah, who is a pianist, views the arts as a cathartic means of expression for those who otherwise lack a voice — those struggling with illness, addiction, or dying. By counteracting the pall of silence and denial with empathetic sharing, such activity is healing. It reaffirms the worth of the individual and most importantly, his or her place in the community.
Many of us are inspired, but Sarah is among the few who persist in achieving her vision. Married at 18, she balanced motherhood — she had the first of her three daughters at age 20 — with being a college student, finally earning her degree from Queens College in 1967, 12 years after she attended her first class. The family lived first in Queens before moving to Great Neck, Long Island. Her husband, Alan Schwartz, was a professional musician who went to grad school for English literature. After obtaining a Ph.D. in English literature at New York University, he got a Fulbright and the family spent a year in Chile. “I managed the house with hired help, studied Spanish, and played tennis. It was great,” Sarah recalled. She and her family were part of “an intercultural community, and I still have friends from back then.”
After returning to Long Island in 1969, Sarah went to graduate school at Yeshiva University for social work and was one of the few lefties at the school. “I have a picture of me standing on a truck holding a big poster that says ‘Stop the Bombing,’” a reference to the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. “I suspect there’s a file on me somewhere. I was also part of an organization called Women Strike for Peace. One of our leaders was Bella Abzug. I’ve kept many of those friends.”
She earned her master’s degree in 1972 and worked at a community mental health center before becoming a social worker at a junior and senior high school. More than just an office-bound counselor, Sarah started an improvisational theater group, called the OK Theater, as an enticing alternative to drugs and other destructive temptations for teens. (She is still in touch with the teenage girl who helped her launch the group. “She’s my Irish goddaughter,” Sarah said, adding that she has several goddaughters, including a social worker in Nepal and a local young woman whose mother died of breast cancer 18 years ago.) “I developed this method where every kid developed a character. The kids played each other’s parents and interacted with the audience. It was the teen version of 60 Minutes. I drove a little school bus and we traveled all over the Northeast.” She ran the theater group for 18 years, until leaving her job at the school in 1994.
On Long Island, Sarah unsuccessfully ran for the county legislature in 1983 (“there’s a great picture of me with Mario Cuomo and Gerry Ferraro”) and headed the Reformed Democratic Association (“one of the people I mentored was [current state comptroller] Tom DiNapoli”). She was active in the Long Island Progressive Coalition, part of the Working Families Party. She also started the first women’s center. “We had a wonderful program and it still exists,” she said, noting that in any community, one can get involved simply by “finding the right place to go and looking at the bulletin board.”
In 1988 she bought a house outside of Poughkeepsie with her then-partner, an Israeli man. After they broke up, she moved to Gardiner, dividing her time between Long Island, where she was still working, and the Hudson Valley. “I always lived in two places,” she said. Currently she resides in Uptown Kingston part of the week and the rest of the time in Westchester County with her widowed older daughter and granddaughter.
In 1992, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Thanks to a man named Gary Null, who had a program on [New York City alternative radio station] WBAI, I got a lot of my education about alternative health attitudes, including the fact that maybe you don’t need a mastectomy,” she said. Because such information was not widely disseminated, she organized the Mid-Hudson Breast Health Action Project, in New Paltz. The group went to Washington with petitions demanding more money for breast cancer research and ultimately got funding after joining up with the National Breast Cancer Coalition.