Sarah’s Guest House offers a respite during crises
By Eileen Jevis | Staff writer
It happens in an instant. Your life is turned upside down by a crisis or illness that changes your priorities and you call on God for strength and help. You wonder where you’ll find the fortitude to meet each new day with hope and faith. Family members who must travel away from their hometown to accompany a loved one who needs crucial medical treatment may experience additional anxiety and a feeling of isolation without their family and friends to lean on for support.
But in Syracuse, there is a place that serves as a home away from home. A place where the staff and volunteers become advocates and a support system to the guests. Sarah’s Guest House was established in 1994 in a small house that was owned by Most Holy Rosary Parish on the city’s southwest side. The healthcare hospitality home provides lodging, transportation, meals and comfort to families and patients receiving medical care in Central New York.
In 2020, Debbie Effland’s 15-year-old daughter, Chelsi, was in a very serious car accident and was transported from Boonville, Oneida County, to Upstate Medical Center. Her parents rushed to Syracuse to be by her side as she underwent several surgeries to repair multiple broken bones. After two weeks at Upstate, Chelsi was moved to Golisano’s Pediatric Hospital. Chelsi’s father had to return home to his job and the Efflands’ other daughter who was getting ready to leave for college. For the next five weeks, Debbie Effland stayed at her daughter’s side during her long road to recovery.
Effland is one of the more than 19,000 guests that Sarah’s Guest House has served since it opened. The establishment has continued to grow and serves approximately 1,000 each year.
Rick Tremblay and his wife left their home in Cincinnati, Ohio, and traveled to Binghamton where his mother-in-law was in the intensive-care unit. After a week in the ICU, she was transferred to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse. They heard about Sarah’s Guest House from a nurse at the Binghamton hospital.
Tremblay said arriving at Sarah’s Guest House was a true blessing. “How do you describe the incredible people and the lovingly cared for facility?” said Tremblay. “The House is a godsend. It is clean, quiet, comfortable, friendly and exceptionally hospitable. It is a safe refuge during some of the darkest periods of the lives of the guests.” Tremblay said that after spending day after day in a stark, and often stressful, hospital situation, returning to Sarah’s Guest House to rejuvenate is an unbelievable blessing. “Each evening, incredibly wonderful volunteers provided delicious meals to warm the bodies, souls and hearts of the guests,” he said. “The staff lovingly and discreetly care for the guests as they execute the beautiful mission of Sarah’s Guest House. It is a home away from home.”
Effland echoed Tremblay’s sentiments. She said that when she returned from the hospital after a long day, she was physically and mentally exhausted. “I would pull into my parking spot, shut off my van and just sit there trying to make sense of it all,” she said. Sometimes, she would sit on the porch to relax and reflect. “Chelsi and I had a lot of difficult days, and I did my best to be strong for her.”
Effland said the house, staff and volunteers supported the guests every step of the way. “If I needed to vent, they listened. We listened to each other.” Effland said that every evening, guests would return from a long day at the hospital and give updates on their loved one. Being away from her husband and other daughter was difficult for Effland. “I missed being home and cooking for my family. While the food the volunteers brought was wonderful, sometimes Effland would cook for the other guests to stay busy and show appreciation for having a safe place to stay.
The original four-bedroom home, founded by Mary Keough, was located next to the Most Holy Rosary Convent on Roberts Avenue. Keough is well known in the area for her service to the community and her hospitality. Sarah’s Guest House would not exist in its current convenient location without the generous hearts of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM). With the increase in the number of individuals looking for an affordable place to stay, the organization quickly ran out of room in the original house.
The convent, located next door, had several empty rooms and in 2005, the Sisters offered to share the space with those in need of lodging. Sister Helen Ann Charlebois (IHM) explained that the number of nuns was dwindling. They approached Father Fred Mannara, pastor of Most Holy Rosary, and asked if the parish would consider using the dwelling to house guests needing a place to stay. He and the parish council were in full support of the idea.
“The nuns who moved to one side of the building made a commitment to our organization so that we could occupy part of the convent,” explained David Haas, executive director of Sarah’s Guest House. “Due to their generosity, we were able to remain an anchor in this community and provided an additional seven bedrooms—bringing our total to 11 total in 2005.”
“Part of the Church’s calling is to serve the marginalized and to care for the sick,” added Sister Helen. Sarah’s Guest House is a prime example of how the healing ministry of Jesus continues by opening our doors to whoever is in need.” The Sisters have been in the neighborhood for 107 years. “Donating our convent to Sarah’s Guest House is a gift to the community.” The remaining three Sisters who lived in the house have moved yet again, this time so that Sarah’s Guest House can be completely renovated. The house is still in operation while the organization raises the funds to renovate the house and make it handicapped accessible. An elevator will be installed, and when the construction is complete in 2024-25 it will have a total of 22 guest rooms.
“Since 2014, we have had to turn away over 1,000 people who needed a place to stay,” explained Haas. “We couldn’t provide the proper accessibility they needed and space was limited. Currently, there are only two first-floor bedrooms and those fill up quickly.”
To raise funds for the expansion and to cover operating expenses, Sarah’s Guest House will be hosting its annual springtime gala. The proceeds from the gala account for 38% of their annual budget. This year’s theme is “Double the Fun…Double the Hospitality!” The gala will be held at 6 p.m. April 22 at the DoubleTree by Hilton in East Syracuse. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the website at sarahsguesthouse.org/gala2022.
The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary will be honored at the event for their continued generosity and support. “I can never put into words the gratitude we feel toward the nuns for this gift,” said Haas. “They called this building their home for many decades yet packed up their belongings and moved into a new space in the rectory across the street so that we can continue to offer hospitality to those in need.”
“Everything we have done is a credit to the vision and work of Mary Keough,” said Sister Helen. “She laid the foundation and made our vision a reality. Her generous spirit continues to inspire us each day.”