October 24, 2021

Earl gets Alice Walker award

Katie Keyser/contributing photographer

Lillie Barber, 12, of Cortland, Sara Earl of Cortlandville, and Emily Marshall of Cortland, 15, prep tacos for a session May 23 of Girls Empowered Motivated Successful, a support group of girls that meets weekly at the YWCA. Earl, retired from the YWCA, will remain a volunteer with the group.

Sara Earl said she may be retired from the YWCA, but she’s “sticking with the G.E.M.S.”

“When I started the group, I said, every Thursday for the rest of your lives, I will be doing G.E.M.S. (Girls Empowered Motivated Successful).”

The former development director at the YWCA in Cortland helped found the support group for adolescent girls between 13 and 16. It was an off shoot of a summer photo program that Earl oversaw.

Earl obtained grant monies and camera donations and found instructors so the girls could learn to use digital cameras.

“The girls felt they needed to continue that group for support,” Earl said. “They wanted a safe place.”

Amy Simrell, then director of the YWCA, told Earl she was overextended in her then job as director of Bridges for Kids. “’And we have no money,’” Simrell told her.

“I am going to do it anyway,” Earl said. “You look at the girls who say, ‘When are we meeting again?’ I saw such growth in them. They had so much more confidence.”

It’s this ability to fulfill a need that likely landed Earl the Alice Walker Award from the Cortland League of Women Voters.

The late Walker, a psychology professor at SUNY Cortland, had a clear sense of justice, community service and if she saw a need, she stepped in to address it. Every year, a person who emulates these qualities gets the award from the club.

Earl, of Cortlandville, will be honored at a special dinner, open to the public, on June 11. “It was a surprise. A total surprise. It’s an honor,” Earl said.

The dinner will take place 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Tinelli’s Hathaway House in Solon. Reserve a seat by sending an email with dinner choice (chicken, salmon or vegetarian, to lwvcortland@gmail.com or call Alison King at 607-836-6675 by June 4. League members are meeting at 5 p.m. for a business meeting.

The keynote speaker will be Diane Cohen, executive director of Finger Lakes ReUse in Ithaca. She will discuss the progress of the non profit from its founding in 2007 to earning $1.3 million through used material sales in 2018.

Earl just retired from the YWCA in April, where she did a two year stint as director of development, fundraising for the YWCA. She stepped in to help, though it wasn’t a job she reveled in. “I can try, I can be a Band-Aid,” she said.

Her real love was working with children. She was director of the YWCA’s Bridges for Kids mentoring program, matching children in stressed homes with an adult in the community.

“Sara gave 200 percent to her work at the YWCA,” said former executive director Amy Simrell, who hired her for Bridges. “She was not bound by any notion of a standard work week. She went everywhere and anywhere she was needed, sharing in the suffering and successes of her kids and moms, always modeling the next positive step for them to take,” Simrell said.

Earl came to the YWCA from a tutoring post at Cortland City Youth Bureau, working over 14 years with children in elementary schools who were at risk of not graduating from high school. She also helped adults get their high school diplomas at BOCES Adult Education Program.

She’s served on the 1890 House, SPCA and RSVP Advisory Boards. Today she is the copresident of the American Association of University Women and is board secretary for Cortland Area Communities That Care.

Jo Ann Wickman, a member of CACTC, said Earl is a diligent board member. “If she says she will do something, she does it well and on time,” she said. Plus she always shows up, said Wickman.

Earl will remain at the YWCA as a volunteer.

“If the YW didn’t exist, I don’t know what the community would be like,” she said. “They are giving voices to people who are not confident speaking for themselves,” she said.

The YWCA’s childcare programs allow mothers to work, offers health and fitness programs so people can be physically and mentally well. Its Aid to Victims of Violence program advocates for and houses women who are abused. And it’s Bridges program gives children extra attention and care.

“All of them help women feel they are in control over their own lives,” Earl said. “I love it.”

Earl said her mother, Verda, now 94, was a civil rights advocate. She would do sit ins and march on Capitol Hill. Back in the 60s, real estate agents wanted to keep people of color out of certain neighborhoods. Her mom would call up the real estate agent for say, an African American couple and go with them on the tour of the building, and advocate for them.

Her father, a retired sociology professor, plays saxophone and clarinet and is still an active musician. Her parents taught her to volunteer in the community, as a matter of course. She thinks everyone here should do this.

“Sara and her husband Forrest have volunteered in so many capacities in Cortland over the years it is hard to keep track,” said Sue Sherman-Broyles, a YWCA member and a nominator. “Sara won the Kathy Cotterill Community Service Award from the Chamber of Commerce in 2015.”

“In my little Sara happy land that I live in, in my head, everyone is kind and everyone respects each other,” Earl said. “That’s what makes a better community. Everyone has to participate.”