They came into Elizabeth Keeler’s classroom dressed in ragged clothes.
The other children made fun of them, pointed at their hand-me-downs and worn-out shoes. Often, they would gather around the teacher’s desk, simply wanting to talk.
“I was moved by these children of low-income parents,” Keeler remembers.
Eventually, they moved her into a new career: social work. They also gave her a new life’s mission: empowering those in poverty to reach their full potential.
Keeler is one of three Valley woman honored by the YWCA this week for leadership in their community. For all of these women, leadership has meant building up others.
“A good leader will delegate responsibility and encourage people. They empower people,” said Sarah Serbell, an East Valley High School student who received the Young Woman of Achievement award.
This year’s Valley award winners have empowered students, single parents, the sick and the elderly. They include a lawyer, high school senior and retired social worker.
Cynthia McMullen, Sarah Serbell and Elizabeth Keeler have worked long hours for others, often with little recognition.
The YWCA hopes the awards will provide a much-deserved thank you, and perhaps inspire others.
McMullen has given 12 years to the Girl Scouts of America, as a troop leader, camp director and Inland Empire Council vice president. The attorney, who runs a firm with her husband in the Valley and also serves as Medical Lake’s city attorney and prosecutor, wanted a hobby that would bring her closer to her children.
“Other people hunt or fix cars,” she said. “I gravitate toward kids.”
For years, McMullen, her husband and three daughters spent their summer vacations camping with the Girl Scouts. In 1992, they hiked the Pacific Crest Trail for a week, using only what gear they could carry on their backs.
“It was a lot more strenuous than we thought it would be,” McMullen admitted. “But, it taught them that if they put their minds to it, they can accomplish anything,” she said.
“You can rest in five minutes,” she would tell them, when they were about to give up.
It matches her philosophy of life.
McMullen has donated time to Valleyfest, the Festival of Trees and numerous local clubs and boards. She’s also served for 10 years on the Central Valley School Board.
“It’s a place where you can make a difference,” said McMullen, who pushed for the creation of the Early Childhood Education Assistance Program for low-income students. She’s also proud of the district’s remodeling and new school projects, and the education it has provided to her children and others.
“It’s just neat to see kids with potential working and growing,” she said.
Elizabeth Keeler also sees high potential - in the area’s low-income families. The teacher-turned-social worker now helps single parents fight poverty and attain their goals.
The Valley woman has formed support groups for struggling mothers. She’s worked for programs that link the poor to job training and education opportunities. She co-founded the Single Parent Outreach Connection (SPOC), a one-stop shopping center of resources for single moms and dads.
The program now serves 100 families a month, out of the Northeast Community Center. “I discovered these parents were really motivated,” she said. “They were intelligent. They were dedicated to their families. They wanted to work.
“I also noticed how a lot of these people failed. Their car died. Their battery was gone … I concluded what they needed was a place where people could seek resources.”
Satisfaction, she said, comes from seeing people beat the odds.
“One lady arrived in Spokane with her daughter and just the clothes on her back,” Keeler remembered. “She was a victim of domestic violence and had been given a new name. She needed her college transcript, but was afraid of being identified.”
With SPOC’s help, she got her transcript, enrolled in classes, found a place to live and graduated.
“She’s now teaching at a nearby college,” Keeler said.
That, Keeler said, is all the reward she needs.
Sara Serbell, the youngest YWCA award winner, heads to college next fall. She had considered a California school, but an automobile accident changed her mind.
Last summer, while her 16-year-old sister, Loretta, was traveling on Interstate 90 with friends, a tire blew. Sarah remembers feeling a sharp pain in her stomach about the time it happened. Loretta had broken her back.
The accident changed Sara’s life. She decided she didn’t want to leave Spokane, and her family, for college next year. Family came first, she said. Then school. Then friends. Then work.
For more than a month after the accident, she taxied her sister’s friends from school to the Serbells’ house every day after school. She helped Loretta with her brace and her therapy. She encouraged her to push herself further.
“Yesterday, she sat up eight hours straight,” the East Valley senior said proudly.
Sometimes, she said, it makes her own long list of achievements seem irrelevant.
Serbell has been an honor student, athlete, band president, drum major, camp counselor, church deacon and active community volunteer. She spent two years worth of Saturdays cleaning and visiting at the home of an elderly woman.
“It’s amazing what you can do for others,” the teen said.
A simple compliment or friendly hello, she said, can change someone’s whole day.
That’s power, Serbell said.
That’s true leadership.
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