Unsung Hero: Sarah Asch of Portland, listening to those in need

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Sarah Asch, surrounded by animals and toys in the entrance of the Center For Grieving Children on Forest Avenue in Portland, where she has been volunteering for seven years. “This is actually an incredibly uplifting place,” she said. “I feel so fortunate to be working here.”

PORTLAND — Sarah Asch’s father was a doctor, and in her house, death was considered just a fact of life.

“We were never encouraged to express our feelings about death,” Asch said.

Sometimes the acorn falls very far from the tree. Today, Asch spends countless hours listening to people go through the grieving process.

In many cases, she helps them express their thoughts and feelings by creating art. Because of her multiple talents and can-do attitude, Asch is considered a superstar volunteer by the staff at the Center for Grieving Children.

Asch majored in theater design at Boston University, but she said, “I had the talent, but not the personality to pursue a career in the competitive world of theater.” She then moved to Portland, where she worked as a graphic designer. Tempted by the prospect of working with young people, she eventually became an art teacher.

“I loved helping middle school kids explore themselves through art,” she said.

While teaching, Asch commuted to Lesley University in Boston to earn a master’s degree in art therapy. As a graduate student, she took an internship with the Center for Grieving Children, and a lasting match was struck.

“I felt at home right away,” she said.

Celebrating its 25th year of service, the Center for Grieving Children notes that its mission is to “provide loving support to grieving children, their families and the community through peer support, outreach and education.” The Center serves 350 people in support groups each year, and many more through educational outreach programs. It is totally self-supporting, and receives no funds from the state or the federal government.

At the center, Asch said, “I’m a jack of all trades. I do whatever needs to be done.”

Indeed, she does: leading support groups for children and families; serving as an intake administrator; training new volunteers; handling crisis intervention; attending America’s Camp, a program established in western Massachusetts for children survivors of 9/11; arranging the flowers; and on and on.

“People say to me, ‘Isn’t that depressing?’ And I tell them, ‘No, it’s the most life affirming work you can do,'” she said. “You’re letting people talk, helping them express their emotions and say their truths. You’re also letting them know that it’s OK to have more than one emotion.

“For example, a teenage girl might feel guilty about wanting to get her driver’s license at the same time she feels devastated about the fact that her dad is dying. She shouldn’t feel guilty. She’s being a teenager, a normal human being, and that’s OK,” Asch continued. “Doing this work is transformative. I get much more out of the time I spend at the center than I give, and I know the other volunteers feel the same way.”

Susan Giambalvo, the center’s program director, expressed immense appreciation for each of the 150 volunteers who assist at the center each year. Indeed, a Volunteer Recognition and Reunion Night will be held at DiMillo’s on the Water from 5:30-8 p.m. on Aug. 18. She said Asch is an exceptional “go-to” person.

“Sarah brings tremendous skills to the center, and whenever we need something done, she’s willing to do it,” Giambalvo said. “She’s involved in every aspect of our work. She truly rises above.”

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Unsung Heroes

One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: heroes@theforecaster.net.