Sarah Hemminger admits to being a professional stalker. But she’s not pursuing celebrities trying to escape attention; her eye is on teenagers who desperately need attention to escape what she calls “the poverty of isolation.”
“At some point in each of our lives we have all felt disconnected. For some, this sense of isolation is momentary; for others, it lasts a lifetime. However long it lasts, it leaves unfulfilled our very human need to connect with and matter to others.”
Sarah knows the demoralizing power of isolation. She remembers being ostracized by her church community after her parents exposed a corrupt pastor. It was being part of a strong, loving family that enabled her to rise above the pain.
At the same time, her best friend, Ryan, was also going through a difficult time. His father was in prison. His mother had survived a terrible car crash but could no longer work and became addicted to pain killers. As they descended into crippling poverty, Ryan’s grades also dropped drastically and he was on the verge of dropping out of school. What saved him was a handful of caring teachers who stepped into his life, becoming a surrogate family, bringing him breakfast, doing his laundry, providing money, tutoring and encouragement. Ryan graduated from high school a straight ‘A’ student accepted to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Years later, when Sarah was attending school at Johns Hopkins University, their two separate experiences would be the impetus for an innovative idea. In 2004, Sarah and Ryan, who were now married, created a community-based organization in Baltimore called Thread.
“Ryan and I needed to be part of a loving family and community, the kind of family that grew tighter when I was shunned, the kind of community that had pulled Ryan up when things had fallen apart. It was out of this need for connectedness that Thread was founded.”
Thread weaves various groups together into a culturally diverse tapestry of love and support for underperforming high school students living in challenging circumstances, as Ryan once was.
“There are often brilliant, amazing, incredible kids who are distracted because of the insanity going on outside of school.” Sarah says.
In addition to providing academic help and one-on-one mentoring, Thread goes the extra mile, sometimes finding a job for a student’s parent or renovating his home. According to Thread’s philosophy “creatively building unconventional families and communities not defined by DNA and addresses, can overcome the poverty of isolation and, in its place, establish a wealth of human connection.”
And that connection, Sarah believes, is the key to helping these teens see a new world of possibilities as they grow into motivated, resilient and responsible citizens.
“One of our kids got engaged, took his fiancée to see Cinderella on Broadway. This is a kid I would argue with about bringing his gun to school.”
Thread engages students in the bottom 25% of their freshman class, matching them with a group of community and university volunteers who provide individualized support and tap into existing local resources to help them realize their potential.
Each freshman is followed, or “stalked” as the Thread team jokes, for 10 years, a long-term relationship which Sarah says leaves a lasting imprint on the students but also on the volunteers.
“As we have truly become a family and community, I have seen us gain a higher sense of purpose that trumps any individual agenda; it is the hope of being part of something bigger than oneself, something miraculous.”
Since its founding in 2004, the Thread community has grown from 15 students and co-founders to 207 students, their families, over 750 volunteers, and over 70 collaborators. The results are impressive with 100% of Thread students who have been in the program for five years graduating from high school.
“Our future, both as individuals and as a society, is built on the power of relationships. It has been the simple acts of kindness, the openness and generosity, and the humility of our students and volunteers that have changed me.”
Sarah has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the Johns Hopkins University with her research published in several respected scientific journals. She also received the prestigious Siebel Scholars Award for outstanding work in the field of technology and engineering. In addition to her fulltime work with Thread, Sarah is a mother, a wife and an aerobics teacher.
Find out how you can become a part of the Thread Tapestry.