To say that Sarah de Tagyos enjoys living in Santa Barbara is an understatement. She laughs, recalling that just before she and her husband, Peter, moved from the East Coast in 2000, one of her bosses said, “Boy, you know someone is ready to retire when the picture of their home in Santa Barbara has replaced all of their family members on their desk.”
During her nearly 30-year career at AT&T, de Tagyos served as president of the AT&T Foundation — the company’s New York-based philanthropic arm responsible for distributing $40 million annually — and as chief operating officer for AT&T’s 300-member global public relations division.
Not too shabby for a girl from Iowa.
“It really was a fabulous journey from the Midwest to the East Coast to here,” said de Tagyos, who majored in journalism at the University of Iowa and began her career in public relations at Northwestern Bell in Omaha, Neb., before moving to New Jersey to work for AT&T in 1980.
“I think I did it in the right order,” she said, reflecting on the various places she’s lived. “The Midwest was a phenomenal place to grow up. It was safe, the values were good, the people are genuine ... But it wasn’t a terribly intellectually curious place, so when I went east to work for AT&T in New York and New Jersey, it was a culture shock. ... I loved the intellectual energy that was there.”
When she and her husband began to talk about retiring, they knew they wanted to live elsewhere. They came out to Santa Barbara for a week “just to check it out” and “bought a house at the end of the week,” said de Tagyos, smiling at the memory.
“We never looked back,” she said. “It felt like home from the moment we were here.
“We joined La Cumbre Country Club ... and I took up golf (Peter already played). People were just so welcoming and friendly and fun. Golf courses become kind of a refuge away from phones and computers. It’s a four-hour enforced beautiful walk with friends, as the old joke goes, messed up by a swing occasionally.”
The couple still golfs regularly, and de Tagyos does Pilates, hikes and walks on the beach. Still, her plan for leisurely days of R&R didn’t last long.
Wanting to learn more about gardens, she became a docent for the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. She also was active in the Assistance League of Santa Barbara for about five years, putting her impressive strategic management skills to work there, as well as with the Women’s Fund of Santa Barbara, where she currently chairs the steering committee.
Both Assistance League and the Women’s Fund are run by volunteers, she notes.
“An organization that is able to be as successful and sustain itself so well without paid staff, to me is an amazing thing,” she said. “When I was head of the AT&T Foundation, we had a lot of people who came to us to get money for volunteer programs (but) very few seemed to be well-managed with good training, giving people a real sense of purpose.”
While working with the Assistance League’s Fostering Friends program, de Tagyos developed an interest in improving foster care.
“It brought community leaders working in foster care together to talk about various issues, and one of them was housing for emancipated foster youth,” she said of youth who age out of the foster care system when they turn 18. “It’s there that I met a number of people who were doing that work and, in particular, Wendy Read. After a while, Wendy asked me to be on her board (for) the Children’s Project Academy Foundation.”
De Tagyos now serves as secretary of the Children’s Project, which is committed to building a residential charter school for foster teens in Santa Barbara County.
“We have our charter petition approved from the Santa Barbara County Board of Education,” she said. “We have 114 acres of land in Los Alamos that we bought a couple of years ago. We have the campus design ready to start through the development process.
“We’re at a critical point where we need to raise $38 million ... We have done this with one paid staff member and a small board of 10 people, and we’re at a point where we have to consider how to increase our capacity.”
Her passion and knowledge about foster youth are evident.
“Children in foster care, particularly in the teen years, move so often from foster home to group home to foster home to perhaps back with biological parents,” de Tagyos said. “But the moves are frequent and the school is often changed so there is no stability, and at that age it is such a fragile time. It’s no wonder that 50 percent (of foster youth) don’t graduate from high school and 40 percent to 50 percent end up homeless.
“When I was 18, I wasn’t ready to be on my own, for heaven’s sake, and I came from an incredibly loving family. So I don’t know what would happen if you feel that you’ve been let down a lot by adults, and what that does to your sense of self and how you want to succeed in life.”
De Tagyos is also a member of the Santa Barbara Foundation’s Philanthropic Services Committee and a mentor for the Katherine Harvey Fellows program. It’s no wonder that in 2010, the Junior League of Santa Barbara named her its Woman of the Year.
When she’s not busy with her volunteer work, de Tagyos dotes on her four grandchildren.
“I actually have no children,” she explained. “My husband has three grown children and when he and I met the boys were teenagers. So I really have had the pleasure of having them in my life and they’ve been fabulous kids. ... I was an only child so my experience with family is very tiny and calm and organized. I love the frenetic pace of a larger family.
“Never having had young children, it’s been an experience to learn how to be a grandma. I had to learn how to do diapers and become comfortable that I wasn’t going to break them or harm them in some way. I give a lot of credit to my daughters-in-laws for trusting me,” she laughed. “They trained me and trusted me so I think it’s worked well.”