For some, life’s difficult lessons can teach compassion and understanding. Sue Adams exemplifies both. Pregnant with her first child at 22, she assumed babies were born perfect. Her world was shattered when her daughter was born with a cleft palate and lip, failing kidneys and a defective heart. Adams set out on a voyage of learning that has lasted her whole life.
Adams and her husband, Sam, had no money to pay the enormous bill that confronted them when they took their newborn home from the hospital. Santa Barbara’s St. Cecilia Society stepped in to pay their first medical bill, while friends and neighbors helped with babysitting and meals.
“The kindness of others defines who you are,” Adams said. “You never forget.”
In the 1970s, as the number of homeless in Santa Barbara seemed to be increasing daily, Adams was one of the merchants affected by people lying on the sidewalks, discouraging customers. Confronted one morning by a homeless man blocking her store’s unlocked back door, she assumed the worst. She rushed in to check the cash register and was mortified to realize the man had, in fact, been guarding her store. She ran to thank him, but he was gone.
Realizing that not everyone can be painted with the same brush, Adams joined the coalition lobbying to establish Casa Esperanza, a 24-hour shelter providing beds, showers, food and counseling for Santa Barbara's homeless population.
Adams' daughter, Wendy, died of heart failure at age 34, just after advising her mother to consider leaving retail in favor of community service. Adams did just that. She served on the boards of Transition House, Hospice of Santa Barbara and the Visiting Nurse Association of Santa Barbara, and helped organize a holiday party for homeless and battered women and their children. When Sam Adams was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 54, she took care of him, taking him to board meetings until she had to devote herself full time to his care.
Adams continued giving back whenever she could. She helped establish the Pearl Chase Society, which works for the recognition and preservation of rare historic and architectural sites. At the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, she became part of the Museum League, a group that raises funds for important museum projects.
Unsurprisingly, Adams devotes much of her energy to organizations that help those without adequate funds for health care. She serves on the board of the Friendship Center, which assists families dealing with dementia, and she now writes grants for the Cancer Society of Santa Barbara, helping clients find financial assistance for overwhelming medical expenses.
Despite being named 2002 Woman of the Year, Adams insists she must not be singled out in this community of volunteers. The award, in her words, “was really a tribute to my compassionate friends and fellow volunteers who tirelessly give of themselves for the benefit of others.”
Adams has benefited from the many kindnesses she has received in her life and she hopes that her contributions motivate others to volunteer.
“Each of us, in our small measure, is contributing to the betterment of our community," she said. "You don’t just take ... you try to pass it along.”
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Join the Santa Barbara Foundation, Noozhawk and KDB in celebrating those who enrich our lives by donating their time and talent, making a significant and positive impact in the Santa Barbara community, at the 71st Annual Man and Woman of the Year Awards luncheon. The luncheon will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15, at the Four Seasons Biltmore in Montecito.
Click here to purchase tickets online, or call 805.963.1873.
— Suzanne Farwell represents the Santa Barbara Foundation.