Sarah Thebarge, Fierce Lady & Everyday Hero

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Ralph Ellison

Most of us know the story of the Good Samaritan.

A man traveling has been badly beaten and robbed. He is on the roadside, bleeding.

Everyone is passing him by.

The Samaritan stops, takes the wounded man into his care, bathes his wounds, and pays for his care until he recovers.

In the Biblical story, Jesus asks his audience, “Which of these three [men] do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

Whatever your relationship to the Bible, you have to admit it’s a clear moral imperative to Do Unto Others as we would have them do unto you.

But how many of us live this principle when we see the poor and infirm on our city streets?

Do we have mercy?

Even giving change from your pocket is having mercy. But sometimes we might wonder: what would happen if we really took responsibility, if we extended ourselves to the utmost to help someone who was clearly in need?

I couldn’t possibly, I usually think. I would spend all my time helping people. Plus, I just don’t have the resources to put people on a better path.

But the ancient teachings of Buddhism and cause-and-effect suggest that it is not the outcome that matters, but our effort.

Did we have mercy on others and take action, with pure heart, to improve their situation, to the extent we are able?

Today I bring you the story of one woman who did just this.

Sarah Thebarge had a Master’s degree in Medical Science from Yale and was earning a Journalism degree at Columbia. She was going to be a medical reporter.  She was also about to get engaged to the man of her dreams.

Her life was perfectly on track. She loved God, and she knew that this was what happened in life when you love God: He showers you with the blessings you want.

Then, at 27, Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She underwent five surgeries (including a double mastectomy), chemotherapy and radiation. During this period, a close friend of hers died of cancer. She got pneumonia. Her ovaries were destroyed by the chemotherapy. Her cancer returned twice.

And the man she was going to marry broke up with her in a Starbucks parking lot, without putting the car in Park.

My observation of people who have gone through shattering life experiences is that they usually develop a highly refined sense of compassion. This may be what prepared Sarah to meet Hadhi.

Afer recovering from her second recurrence of cancer, Sarah sold all her belongings and moved to Portland to start her life over. This lead to her being on a certain train on a certain autumn afternoon:

A toddler, who wore threadbare pants, an oversized dress, and old sneakers, was standing between the mother’s parted knees, trying to sleep while standing up. I was thinking, Someone needs to hold that tired little girl when she opened her sleepy eyes and looked up at me. I held out my arms. She climbed into my lap, and less than a minute later she was fast asleep with her head against my chest. The scene unfolded so quickly, I hadn’t had time to ask the mother if it was okay. I looked at the mother for permission…without moving her head from the window, her eyes followed my voice. ‘It’s okay?’ I asked her. ‘Yah,’ she said. ‘No problem.’

As I played with this little Somali girl, I started to worry about the family. I thought about how overwhelmed I’d be if I were abandoned in a country ten thousand miles from home, left to care for five children by myself with no language training and no money. How would I even begin to navigate a culture so different from anything I’d known? Then I began to think about the Golden Rule. If the situation were reversed and I were a single mom in Somalia and a kind stranger saw me on the train, what would I want her to do? Help me, I decided. I would want her to help me.

 – Sarah Thebarge, The Invisible Girls

In her memoir of the events, The Invisible Girls, Sarah recounts the logic of compassion she employed. Rather than asking herself, What will happen to me if I help them? – the egocentric perspective we usually come from, concerned about giving up our precious time, money, or comfort when going into the admittedly awkward and difficult situation of reaching across a language and culture barrier to help those who need the most help — she asked herself, What will happen to them if I DON’T help them? 

I consider myself a pretty compassionate guy, but that question had literally never occurred to me.

It’s a question we need to turn on the world and our own lives. What will happen to my community if I don’t take an active interest in making it better? What will happen to my children if I’m not more present in their lives? What will happen to my aging parents if I’m not there to forgive them before they die?

What will happen to them if I DON’T help them? 

The story of what happened next is the subject of the enthralling — and sometimes shattering — memoir. Although it was beyond Sarah’s ability to magically make life easy and pleasant for the Somali family, she has put into place a mechanism by which good can continuously flow into their lives: she is donating 100% of the proceeds of her book to a college fund for the five girls.

Sarah was the first woman in her family to go to college. When she was interviewed for a spot at Yale, she brazenly told them, “I’m giving you a chance to say, ‘We knew her when.'” The next day she was accepted, and that degree changed her life.

Now, she’s going to extend the opportunity for life-changing education to the 5 Invisible Girls that fate — or God — brought to her on a Portland train. Your opportunity to contribute is as simple as picking up a copy of the book, or you can directly donate.

Recently, we were able to catch Sarah for a few questions about her journey. is proud to present this interview with a woman who is truly a Fierce Lady and an everyday hero.

As this article goes to print, Sarah has just arrived in Togo, a tiny country in West Africa, to provide four months’ of medical care to an area that was otherwise a 9-hour drive away from the nearest medical care.

FG: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to more people reaching out to those in need?

I think fear is the main obstacle that holds us back. I know it was for me. When I met the Somali refugee mom and her daughters on the train that first time, I knew they needed help but I didn’t think I should be the one to offer it because my first instinct was to listen to the voice of fear. Fear that I wouldn’t know what to do (I’d never worked with refugees before. I’ve never even been to Africa!) Fear that I wouldn’t be able to solve everything that was wrong with their situation. Fear that the Somali mom would reject my offer of help. Fear that I’d sacrifice a lot of time or money I could never get back. Fear that my efforts will jeopardize my physical safety. The list goes on and on….

But I discovered that when we reject fear and decide to take a risk, that’s when we move past ourselves, past the obstacles that keep us blind and selfish and stuck, and begin to see how we can make the world a better place.

FG: What is your personal relationship with the world “surrender” and how would you counsel women especially who have difficulty with practicing surrender in their own lives?  

For me, surrender is opening my clenched fists.  It’s letting go of something I really want (or think I need), and it’s also accepting something that I really don’t want (like my breast cancer diagnosis when I was 27 years old.)

I think surrender is a gender-neutral action, so my advice isn’t specifically for women, but I’d say that for all of us, we need to come to the place where God is enough and so whatever he takes from us, whatever he gives us, however hard it is to accept, we can be people who live with open hands because no matter what, we have God, and God is enough.

FG: You recently wrote a wonderful article in response to Charleston about the importance of the word “we”. What do you think is the biggest thing we can do to start fostering the attitude of “we” in ourselves?

Oh, thank you! 

We’ve gotten so used to dividing the world into “us” and “them.” We divide the world into liberals and conservatives, men and women, black people and white people, Northerners and Southerners, Christians and non-Christians. And then we scrutinize, criticize and even attack the other side, always pointing the finger away from ourselves. We try as hard as possible to prove that our side is “right,” and we get our identity from the labels we choose for ourselves.

This is problematic on so many levels. It leads to name-calling, fighting and discrimination. It creates conflict instead of bringing peace. And it gives us an artificial identity that isn’t truly who we are.

That’s why, as I said in the piece I wrote, I think “we” is the word that can change the world. We have created problems, we can offer solutions, we can work together, we can suffer with people who suffer and we can rejoice with people who rejoice.

It costs us something to begin to see the world this way, but it will cost us more if we don’t.  

FG: We couldn’t agree more, and this truly embodies the Fierce Gentleman and Fierce Lady ethos. Thank you, Sarah, for spending some time with us, and for all that you do.

Sarah’s story and the trust fund she’s established for the education of the Somali girls reminded me of another real-life Good Samaritan story, that of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistan 17-year-old who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban and is now speaking out actively about the cause of education for girls in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria.

She also won a Nobel Peace prize in 2014.

Nothing can happen when half the population is in the Stone Age. I believe that when women are educated, then you will see this world change.Malala Yousafzai

There are an estimated 66 million girls who want to get an education, but are currently being denied it — either because of poverty, religious fundamentalism, dictators, or disease.

We have to ask the question: what will happen to these girls if we don’t help them?

Ultimately, we must all be for the liberation of our sisters. I am grateful for Fierce Lady leaders like Sarah Thebarge and Malala Yousafzai that show us the way.

Related Links:

Fierce Gentlemen & Ladies: what do you think? Should we invite Sarah to be an honored speaker at our first-annual Fierce Gentleman charity ball?


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6 Comments Sarah Thebarge, Fierce Lady & Everyday Hero

  1. Genevieve

    Yes! You absolutely should ask Sarah to speak! What better mark of a fierce gentleman than to have a truly fierce lady share her story?

  2. Daniel Clement

    “When she was interviewed for a spot at Yale, she brazenly told them, “I’m giving you a chance to say, ‘We knew her when.’” The next day she was accepted, and that degree changed her life.”

    I find this truly inspirational. So many people, whether they are applying for a job or a place at a university, just roll over and accept that the person on the other side of the table has all the power and is doing you a favour if they take you on board. The fact is that if you’ve made it to interview then you have something they want. Be fierce and remind them what it is.

  3. steven schmelefske

    Sarah sounds like an incredible woman. I would love the opportunity to hear her speak. I found your write up and interview very inspiring.

    1. Drew

      Thanks Steven! I’m really glad to hear that. I’d actually love to bring her to San Francisco for a bigger event sometime in the future.


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