The Transylvania Times -

By Ray Tuers 

Sarah Rae St. Marie Grows Into Club's Top Job-Brevard NC

 

Last updated 4/27/2020 at 4:11pm

Since the day when Sarah Rae St. Marie came to the Cindy Platt Boys & Girls Club as a bright new face seven years ago, she has grown with the club, climbing up the leadership ladder.

Last month she was named to the top job, executive director.

She never dreamed that her career path would lead to running the club during a pandemic whose tentacles have reached into every aspect of American life. One of the first things she had to oversee, even before she was officially appointed March 20, was the temporary closing of the club four days before.

Unimaginable develop-ments erupted that week: Schools closed, and as the pandemic spread, the governor prohibited large gatherings of people everywhere.

The club draws an average of 240 school children a day in its after-school programs, so there was no choice but to lock its doors. It couldn't violate the state order and, besides, there were no children to attend after school.

And underlying its action throughout was the club's constant concern for the health and safety of its members.

Now, a month later, St. Marie paused last week to reflect.

"It's actually been a busy month," she said, "which may seem counterintuitive, given we're closed!"

There may not be the noisy chattering of children in the clubhouse on Gallimore Road now, but St. Marie and many of her staff of 30 are busy nonetheless, working from their homes.

"It's not ideal," she says, "but our mission hasn't changed. Our work has changed, but the reason we do it hasn't."

Their motivation is embodied in the club's mission to nurture productive, caring and responsible citizens, with special attention to children most in need. That takes in a lot of territory and demands diligence when serving a total of 400 kindergarteners through high school seniors enrolled in its after-school programs.

Hidden Talents

If anyone is up to leading in stressful times, said Don Gentle, president of the club's board of directors, it is St. Marie. "She is always on top of every detail and her new role at the club has brought out even more of her hidden talents," Gentle said.

Others agree whole-heartedly.

"She's a brilliant young woman who stepped up to lead this organization when it was needed," said Jamie Atkinson, the club's operations director. "And she loves this club and our families as if we were part of her own."

Candice Walsh, who was executive director until last summer, is another fan. "Sarah's heart for our youth, club and community is seen in the gentle and intentional way she cares for their needs," she said. "I am always amazed and inspired by how Sarah approaches every situation with calmness and grace. This quality brings stability, structure and comfort to those around her."

St. Marie has impressed just about every staff member with that calmness under pressure.

"I have watched her as she has shouldered more and more responsibility," said Kathleen de la Torre, the resource development director, "and she bears it with grace and strength."

When the schools closed, St. Marie immediately met with county officials to offer whatever help the club could give as the community faced the pandemic.

Also, once the club itself closed, she offered staff members to serve as volunteers for Sharing House, a local organization that dispenses free goods and services to persons in need.

She made sure many of the club's after-school programs were made available on its website and on Facebook and Instagram.

In addition, the club stepped up efforts to communicate with mem-bers' families, with Tamika Hunter, the membership director, sending out a periodic newsletter to ensure parents are aware of available resources.

"We're constantly trying to get a feeling for what the children and their families need," said St. Marie. "The staff is starting to think through all the different contingencies."

A Grace

St. Marie moves through these times with that characteristic grace others admire. At 5 feet and 11 inches, with an engaging smile, she's become an imposing but endearing figure in the club.

Although as executive director now during the pandemic quarantine she has less face-to-face time with children, she's known for her past talents dealing with them.

De la Torre remembers listening to her counsel club members who were referred for discipline in her early days.

"I loved how she was always calm with them, listening to their side of the story," De la Torre said. "Sometimes it would take time for the children to compose themselves and be willing to speak of their misdeeds, but Sarah gave them as much time as they needed. And I knew Sarah was needed in at least two other places at the same time, but she never hurried them, or lost her focus on them."

St. Marie, 29, will find new ways soon to use her talents at tolerance personally. She's due to give birth to her first child in July.

De la Torre, the mother of two teenagers, said she'll do fine.

"As a parent, I often longed for Sara''s calm and rational response to misbehavior," she said. "I marveled at her and told her I couldn't wait to see her become a parent, because she was so compassionate with our young charges at the club."

St. Marie grew up in Ontario, Canada, the oldest of three siblings, daughter of a pastor. She holds a degree in sociology from the University of North Carolina.

She and her husband live on Monroe Street, a mile from the clubhouse, and she now walks to it when she has to go in occasionally.

Her husband of eight years, Kiffer (a childhood nickname for Christopher), is an airline pilot. She and Kiffer met at a local summer camp when she was 14 and he was 13. They've been sweethearts ever since. He, too, holds a sociology degree from UNC.

Though she always had the height to play basketball, Sarah preferred hockey as a child in Canada and volleyball in high school.

An Ascension

St. Marie came to the Boys & Girls Club in April of 2013.

"When I first met Sarah as a part-time program specialist upon starting my appointment as executive director in 2014," said Walsh, "I knew that her journey with the club was just beginning."

Within two years she was full time working in resource development with Jackie Witherspoon, then the resource director.

In September of 2015 she became joint operations director with Emily Taylor, now a teacher at Brevard Academy. The following year she took time off to accompany Kiffer to Florida, where he worked as a flight instructor.

She returned to the club in the summer of 2018 to work with Witherspoon again, then take over for her when Witherspoon resigned.

The climb continued: In October of that year she became the club's first-ever assistant executive director, under Walsh. When Walsh left in August of last year St. Marie took her place as interim executive director.

In March, after a person from outside the club filled the ED position briefly, she won it permanently when the board's executive committee announced her appointment.

Having actually worked in the role since last summer, St. Marie had a firm grasp on its joys and responsibilities.

"What I love most about this position is really what I've loved about every position I've held at the club," she said. "Our members, the staff and the community we've built. I always look forward to my time with the staff and the kids."

She said the kids especially will always have "a special place in my heart." She tells the recent story of a middle school member who said she really missed going to the club every day after school.

"She said she was bored with staying away and she missed her connection to the club," said St. Marie. "That definitely resonated with me... her desire to be connected."

The only thing she finds tedious about the new job is what she calls "dirty details." That is reading and researching the often windy and arcane regulations and legal documents she encounters.

"But I understand it's part of the job," she said with a smile.

She works every day from a home office set up in a guest room. She sits down with her phone and her computer between 8 and 8:30 each morning.

When things get back to normal, she expects to move in earnest into the club's future. The focus, she says, will be on growth. Her goal is to expand the club's ability to serve a growing community while all the time continuing to nurture current members.

"We have a hundred kids on our waiting list wanting to join," she said. "I want to eliminate that waiting list."

Board President Gentle says he's certain St. Marie is the leader who can steer the club into that future.

"Her sincere and honest character shines as she puts her heart and soul into our club every day," he said.

 
 

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