- a person who achieves great success when relatively young.
When Sarah Lonergan-Rothschild became a Youth Counselor for Westhab, she was looking for a way to channel her passion for human rights into a career in her hometown. Fresh out of college, she wanted a vocation, not just a job. After only eight years, Sarah is now the Director of Adult Housing and Services at Westhab. In her role, she oversees supportive and homeless housing programs in Westchester. She is responsible for more than a dozen staff across five sites, serving approximately 350 people each year. Sarah has worked with some of the most vulnerable populations—street homeless, veterans, the formerly incarcerated, and people with mental health and substance abuse issues in Westchester and NYC. She has done so with a great deal of success. To make this even more impressive, Sarah is just 29 years old.
Considering all the above, it is not very hard to see why Westhab’s Sarah Lonergan-Rothschild is the recipient of a 914INC. 2022 Wunderkind Award, which recognizes people under 35 who are making an impact and generating change in their Westchester industries. This award confirms what Westhab has known for some time—that Sarah’s passion and dedication are rare and valuable indeed.
Sarah has long felt a calling to serve those most in need. She hails from the Bronx, via Riverdale. Sarah is adopted, and it was around the time she went to college that she began thinking a lot about her Hispanic identity and social justice. “I was recognizing how fortunate I was to have been adopted and imagining what life might look like if I wasn’t, imagining I was not so lucky to be in a family that was able to give me a good life and financial security.” In college, Sarah pursued a degree in International Studies and traveled to Peru and Bolivia on humanitarian missions. Living with the local community, she witnessed firsthand the effects of extreme poverty. It wasn’t until her last semester she took an Intro to Social Work course. That’s when all the pieces fell into place, and she decided to pursue her Master’s Degree in Social Work.
Sarah arrived at Westhab in 2014 to work as a youth counselor, and eventually as a social work intern. She was then offered a full-time role as a Senior Case Manager until she was promoted again to Service Coordinator. As her experience and responsibility grew, Sarah still loved working one-on-one with clients, helping them on the path to permanent housing. She explains, “It’s important for me to be in the field. I want to be amongst my staff and clients. I keep my office on-site so I am central to the population I am serving.”
In 2020, Sarah stepped into her current role as Director of Adult Housing and Services. In the last two years, Sarah has faced unprecedented challenges, both professional and personal, that she and her team have met head-on. Under her leadership, the existing Westchester programming was not only able to survive, it expanded.
Sarah’s promotion came during a major spike in COVID cases, just as she was taking on the challenge of being a new mom to her daughter, Esme. She had to learn to balance between her daughter, the pandemic, and a demanding job she loved. The months that followed were some of the scariest and most chaotic of her career, but Sarah rose to the challenge and quickly learned to navigate the pandemic alongside her clients and staff. She advocated for on-site testing, quarantining sick clients, and continually educated staff and clients about best practices to keep themselves and their families safe.
Providing for the emotional needs of her staff, COVID or not, is a major part of the job. According to Sarah, “This work is already heavy. We had a lot of losses throughout my programs. We lost staff, people were sick, and we also lost clients. That’s heavy stuff and you worry about your staff’s wellness. Are they going to be able to find the strength?” Sarah says talking openly and commiserating has been the best way to support her staff. And she tries to remind them not to lose their passion. “I tell them, I’ve been there. On bad days, I have fantasized about being a hairdresser, but I remember the rewards of making a positive difference in someone’s life. I think that helps–my staff knowing they have support.” She says the camaraderie works as much for her as it does for them.
In the midst of these challenges, Sarah and her team launched a brand-new program in March 2021 called Project Connect—an effort to engage the street homeless population living in downtown Yonkers and guide them towards permanent housing. The program has since engaged 219 individuals, placing 50 in temporary shelter working towards permanent housing and 10 into permanent housing.
If you ask Sarah about her accomplishments, the first thing she will tell you is she couldn’t do it without her team. “I have such a strong, resilient staff who are really committed to the people we serve. We are a family here.” She is truly proud of how successful her staff has been at housing people who would typically be turned away, finding job opportunities for clients, and even helping some reunite with estranged family members. She also credits her success to the mentorship she has received from her Westhab supervisors, especially Percio Bernal, Director of Supportive Housing. When asked about the role he’s played, Percio explained “From our first interview, I was impressed because I saw a true social worker at hand. In our field of social work, we call this paying it forward. I saw the potential that Sarah had just like my supervisors saw in my work, ethics, and values.” And, despite the praise, Sarah is humble. She barely mentioned her Wunderkind award to her staff. Many found out from an internal congratulatory email sent by the COO.
The work Sarah does is not glamorous. The days are often long and demanding, and sometimes, without thanks. But Sarah is undoubtedly a Wunderkind, and not just for her programmatic success. Challenge seems to bring out her best qualities— the character of resilience and her ability to focus on and care deeply about her clients. These qualities have made her an integral part of the organization’s work serving homeless and low-income communities in Westchester. Westhab is so incredibly proud of this Wunderkind, one that inspires both staff and clients and truly embodies our mission of building communities and changing lives.
Westhab staff show support for Sarah at the 914INC. Wunderkind award ceremony!