Sarah Roberson says she has a “crazy-loud-messy” life and that’s just how she wants it.
The daughter of “two hippies that love Jesus,” Roberson’s life didn’t go as planned. And she ended up — career-wise — exactly where she started. But now she’s the boss.
“I grew up in this really carefree family where we got to make mistakes freely,” she says. “I always talk about how I live this big, messy life where you share all of your stuff and you talk about everything. We always talk through everything.”
As a freshman in 1995 at Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz., who was making middle-of-the-road grades, Roberson decided she needed to do something different.
“I was a singer and I wanted to be a Broadway star but, practically, I was going to get a music degree,” she says. “I got to college and realized I loved the community aspect of music. I loved putting on a show … but I didn’t love studying. My parents said, ‘You don’t have to go to college, but you’ve got to do something, so figure out what you are going to do.’”
She saw an ad in a magazine seeking members for AmeriCorps and she applied. She was given a spot as a City Year Corps member in San Jose, Calif., working at an elementary school where 27 languages were spoken.
One of the first-graders she worked with — Kingly — was a Cambodian immigrant. He couldn’t read but was “brilliantly smart,” she remembers. He loved stickers, and Roberson challenged him to read 50 books “with the biggest book of stickers you have ever seen” as the prize. He accepted the challenge.
“He had stickers all over himself. He was one walking sticker,” she says. “This was the first time I really understood that it is pretty simple to make a difference. It was just consistency and telling him that he could read and that he was smart.”
She keeps a photo of Kingly near her desk at City Year Little Rock, where she is vice president and executive director of the organization. The photo is part of a card sent to her by her father, Charles.
“I was having a bad day and my dad sent me flowers and the card that said, ‘Kingly can read and that’s what you are there for,’” she says.
But the road from her early days at City Year to being executive director was not direct.
After two years with City Year in San Jose, she returned to college, getting a degree in political science from San Jose University. After graduation, she learned the public-service nonprofit was opening an office in Little Rock and looking for employees. She interviewed over the phone for the position of startup team captain.
“I had never been to Arkansas in my life, and I literally had to look at a map to see exactly where Little Rock was because I thought it was more north.”
After planting City Year in Little Rock, Roberson decided to return to California in 2006 to work for the American Leadership Forum as director of its corporate-level leadership program.
Three days before Christmas, her apartment burned and she lost everything.
“Within 24 hours, I had people from Little Rock sending me gift card after gift card. All of my friends pooled together enough money for me to buy furniture from Target so I could have a couch and chair,” she says. “This huge influx of love came my way.”
By the next March, she and her boss made the mutual decision that Roberson’s heart was not in her work. Her boss advised her to “find your passion. Figure out what you want to do.”
“I took a little bit of time off, and at the end of the day, I thought, ‘I don’t know what I want to do, but I want to do it in Little Rock.’”
She took a job as director of programs for the Arkansas Women’s Foundation and returned to Little Rock.
“I loved working there, but I still had this heart calling that there was something else, so I literally sat down and wrote down everything I wanted to do and I looked at it and thought … ‘I want to work at City Year.’”
Shannon Butler, the nonprofit’s executive director at that time, cobbled together two part-time positions for Roberson — working with City Years in Little Rock and Boston. When Butler decided to move to Northwest Arkansas, Roberson took over as director.
“When I was a Corps member, I was voted most likely to be an executive director,” she says. “I was like ‘Yeah, right guys.’ But I am doing it and I love it.”
THE CITY YEAR STORY
City Year, a division of the AmeriCorps community service program, was founded in 1988, and the City Year Little Rock branch began in 2004 with retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark as the founding board chairman.
Through the program, young people (often recent college or graduate-school graduates) spend a year or two in one of 28 urban, high-poverty communities across the country, helping the public school system.
Stephanie Streett, executive director of the Clinton Foundation, chairman of City Year Little Rock and Roberson’s mentor, says Roberson baby-sat for two of her daughters when she first moved to Little Rock.
“She had such a connection with my girls. I just fell in love with Sarah. She is so warm and so giving. … I trusted her with my most precious resources.”
Streett says Roberson is the perfect person to lead City Year, adding she has built “a deep relationship with the Little Rock School District that is so important to us.”
“She is so passionate about her work,” Streett says. “She talks about City Year in a way that is very easy to understand. … And she is very kid-focused.”
Streett will be honored for lifetime service at City Year’s Red Jacket Ball on Thursday.
The City Year members work with students, either one-on-one or in groups, encouraging them in subjects such as math and English and even classroom attendance.
City Year Little Rock has 54 recruits working with about 5,000 students in six schools — Mabelvale Elementary, Mabelvale Middle, Cloverdale Middle, Hall High, J.A. Fair High and McClellan High.
“We work really closely with the school district and look for the lowest performing students, and then we are using data to make sure we are moving with our students,” Roberson says, explaining a Corps member will follow a student from elementary, to middle and then to high school.
COOL, CRAZY, HIPPY PARENTS
Charles and Sharon Roberson raised their two girls — Sarah and Ami — in the Little Saigon area of Santa Ana, Calif. Charles was a designer for Disney Land and later opened a flower shop. But the family decided to move to a small town after Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, murdered one of their neighbors.
During a vacation to Bullhead, Ariz., the Robersons found that Bullhead City Florists was on the market. They bought the shop, moved and made their girls frequent employees. They spent Mother’s Days and Valentine’s Days helping to get orders ready.
“When I was in the fourth grade, my dad got a bunny suit. I was this chubby bunny and would be driven around in the flower van and you would get your flowers from this little chubby bunny kid,” she remembers. “And I would get tips!”
Her parents met in the hippy, dippy 1960s when Sharon taught Charles guitar lessons.
“My dad was a poet and my mom put it to music. Their wedding announcement in the paper was something like ‘Harmonies bring two young people together.’”
“They had this kind of poetic love story. They were like legit hippies. The two of them went around and sang peace and freedom songs in little clubs all around Southern California when my dad was working at Disney.”
She asks a visitor if she would like to see a recent photo of her parents. Dad is wearing a funny little hat. Mom has a nose ring — something she got when she turned 50. Charles is 73. Sharon turns 70 this year.
“I have these cool, crazy, hippy parents,” she says. “They are hippies that love Jesus. I think that’s the qualifier. They believe in loving people and taking care of people, and they are kind.”
FUNKY BEACH SHACK
On the weekends, the Robersons took their girls to their little beach shack in Mexico. “Every night we would sit around the fire and sing songs. Food and the guitar and John Denver — old traditional folk songs — that’s my childhood.”
Other family friends from Southern California owned nearby shacks in Campo Lopez, Mexico. Roberson describes her house as “a plywood beach shack that had one of those push toilets and there were no doors.”
The shack was on a cliff with steps that led down to the beach. There were the Campo Lopez sand sculpture contests, the Campo Lopez Olympics and Campo Lopez progressive dinners.
“It was just super carefree. I would spend all day playing Yatzee on the deck or going swimming and catching gruion.”
Gruion is a small fish that spawns during a full moon. Roberson and her friends would catch the fish in buckets with holes drilled in the bottom.
“My mom would wake us up at midnight and we would go down to the beach and scoop up all of these fish and have a big fish fry the next day.”
Roberson met her boyfriend Trent Bower on the online dating site OKCupid. He was in Ohio and she was in Little Rock, but she noticed they had a friend in common on Facebook and did a little background check before proceeding.
After several phone calls, the two decided to have a virtual date on Skype.
“I said we should go on a date — of course I did. I ended up having a late night at work. I was going to get dressed up like I was actually going on a date. He actually dressed up like he was going on a date. It was the sweetest.
“We looked at each other on the computer and had dinner together,” she adds. “We each made dinner and talked to each other. It was real sweet.”
They met in person about five years ago — choosing Nashville, Tenn., as a neutral location. Her friend Grant Tennille was not happy that she decided to meet a guy that she only knew online.
“I told her that fortunately I know a lot of people in Nashville,” Tennille says. “I told her just make sure you tell this guy we will find him if anything goes wrong.”
Bower, an engineer and entrepreneur, moved to Little Rock about 2 ½ years ago. They just moved into a house across the street from Hall High School.
“I loved the idea of living across the street from a school that we serve,” she says.
Tennille says Roberson and Bower spend a lot of time at the Tennille house with Grant’s wife, Rebecca, and daughters Sarah, 15, and Annie,
- During spring break, Roberson went to New York with Rebecca and the Tennille girls to see some Broadway shows.
“Sarah would give anything to anybody if she thought it would help,” Grant Tennille says. “Our family has had health crisis upon health crisis for the last couple of years, and Sarah has been there for us 24/7 — 365.”
And while she is thousands of miles from her parents and sister — Ami is a vice president at a limousine service in Las Vegas — she travels to see them several times a year. And she FaceTimes with her 3-year-old nephew Robert three or four times a week.
“I like to live life with other people,” she says. “I like to be a part of the community. That lends itself to being loud and messy. Plans are not always boxed up. Plans are not always in place.”
“Try to be as joyous as you can in the moment,” she suggests. “Love people through all of the mess.”
“When I was a Corps member, I was voted most likely to be an executive director. I was like ‘Yeah, right guys.’ But I am doing it and I love it.” -Sarah Roberson
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Dec. 12, 1977, Anaheim Calif.
• MY FAVORITE MOVIE OF ALL TIME IS: Singin' in the Rain.
• IN THE SHOWER, I SING: Show tunes loudly.
• MY FAVORITE VACATION SPOT IS: Santa Cruz, Calif.
• IN MY REFRIGERATOR YOU WILL ALWAYS FIND: Real butter.
• IN HIGH SCHOOL MY NICKNAME WAS: Sarah Bella.
• MY FAVORITE FLOWER IS: Daffodil.
• BEHIND MY BACK MY FRIENDS SAY I AM: Bossy.
• THE LAST BOOK I READ AND LOVED IS: Grit by Angela Duckworth.
• IN MY CAR I LISTEN TO: NPR or Hamilton.
• MY LAST MEAL WOULD CONSIST OF: My mom's pot roast and my dad's peach cobbler.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Sincere
Print Headline: Sarah Ellen Roberson: A family devoted to peace, service and freedom prepared Sarah Roberson to enjoy helping all kinds of people.