This ‘house mother’ is committed to guiding women through recovery

This ‘house mother’ is committed to guiding women through rehabilitation

In Pasadena, California, Debra Sandrowski was awarded Mother of the Year for supporting women in rehabilitation for 22 years.

More than 130 women and their families gathered at The Salvation Army Pasadena (California) Tabernacle Corps for the 2023 Mother’s Day Luncheon when Women’s Adult Rehabilitation Resident Manager Debra Sandrowski was awarded Mother of the Year.

“I was just shocked,” Sandrowski said. “I had no idea this was going to happen.”

She was recognized for her commitment as Resident House Mother and her continued dedication to helping women in recovery through the Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) program. She went through the same program 22 years ago, and was the eighth woman to complete it in Pasadena after the program began in 2001.

Today, multiple women view Sandrowski as a role model and refer to her as Mom.

“Having someone in this role who understands these experiences is vital to the success of the program and the women,” said Major Paula Wild, Pasadena Tabernacle Corps Officer.

While Sandrowski did not know she would receive the award, it was something that had been in the plans for a while.

Event organizers played a video featuring Sandrowski’s daughter and granddaughter before her niece came out to surprise her as she received the award. “It was like everyone was there with me, and it was just beautiful,” she said.

Sandrowski said her journey was not painless, and it took time and support from the ARC to get to where she is today.

“I didn’t come into this program perfect,” she said. “I really never thought I would have been chosen for this.”

Before finding her place within The Salvation Army, Sandrowski said she struggled to be the mom she wanted for her children. She found herself distanced from them as she struggled with various social, emotional and spiritual challenges, including problems relating to alcohol or drug abuse.

“I sent their father Mother’s Day cards every year because he was a mother and a father for quite a few years,” she said. “But today, I have 14 women at a time that are my children. I can’t believe how God has blessed me in taking care of these women.”

After finding sobriety, Sandrowski reclaimed her relationship with her children, met her grandchildren, and today, she gets to watch her great-grandchildren grow up.

“The Salvation Army has truly saved and changed my life,” she said. “In so many ways, it’s given me a chance to be that mom that I wasn’t.”

Wild said the Mother of the Year award dates back to 1950 and is an annual tradition to recognize a special mother from the corps.

Families gather for food, tea and music in the courtyard, and the nearby ARC sets up a boutique so guests can bid on items with proceeds going to the ARC.

And eventually, a Mother of the Year is announced.

“We look for somebody who stands out and who has done a great job not just being a mother—but also how they contribute to others in the church, society and their overall kindness,” Wild said.

“The Salvation Army has truly saved and changed my life,” she said. “In so many ways, it’s given me a chance to be that mom that I wasn’t.”

In the women’s ARC program, the 14 women live together in a dedicated house to ensure continued support and structure through work therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Bible study at the corps, and group trips to places like the beach and camp.

“She gets to know them individually and she gives a lot of herself to them,” Major Christine Morales, Pasadena ARC Administrator, said of Sandrowski.

Sandrowski oversees the program around the clock with a second resident manager, Deborah Richards. Together they organize meals, plan activities, and drive the women to outings.

“Resident managers are guiding people through the program and acting as that constant support,” Morales said.

When a new resident joins the house, Sandrowski and Richards handle the intake responsibilities and ensure they are comfortable and situated. Before women arrive, Sandrowski shops for new clothing for them.

Sandrowski said she and Richards have formed an impactful team. They work together to maximize their efforts and involvement with the women in recovery.

“It takes a dedicated person to do this work,” Sandrowski said. “You have to be fully committed, and to me, this is my ministry, and I feel she feels the same. It’s all about our women here.”

For many of the women entering the house, they experience a new level of care and motherly guidance. Something that some of them have never had.

“Some women come in and need to be taught how to make a bed properly or how to work a washing machine,” Sandrowski said. “We’re here to teach them those things and be open, patient, and understanding while doing it.”

It’s the atmosphere of support and normalcy that allow the women to experience what recovery can be like, Sandrowski said.

“It’s nice to come into a home,” she said. “Some women walk in the house and just cry after being so overwhelmed.”

Women in the program often make connections through shared experience, which creates a supportive, caring environment where sobriety is maintained—and recovery happens.

“I think when you’ve gone through something like addiction, you know how hard the struggle is, but you’ve succeeded,” Wild said. “Not only does that strengthen you, but it brings encouragement to the ladies and shows that they too can do it because they see the example in Debra.”

While some ask about retirement, Sandrowski said she has no plans of stepping down from her role and continues to stay motivated by the women around her.

“I’m very content here,” she said. “Even when I go on vacation, I miss them and I call them. That’s how I know I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

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Haley Osness

Haley Osness is a Staff Editor at Caring, where she shares inspiring stories about the impact The Salvation Army is making every day. She’s inspired by the people around her and their desire to do good, no matter the circumstances. With a passion for writing and video storytelling, she majored in Journalism, Advertising and Media Studies and achieved a certificate in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. When she’s not working on her next story, you’ll find her strolling the beach with her Yorkiepoo, Ollie.