Getting sober was the first step to self-realization for Sarah Bell Williams.
Enrolling in Laurel Ridge Community College was the next. Through her hard work and determination, Williams was named the Outstanding Graduate for the Middletown Campus when she graduated in 2011. She went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from prestigious universities, and today works as a therapist with some of the most vulnerable members of society.
In April 2023, Williams was presented with Laurel Ridge’s Distinguished Alumni of the Year award.
“She is one of the most inspiring alumni I know,” Laurel Ridge Educational Foundation Executive Director Liv Heggoy wrote in her nomination of Williams. “Her story and her accomplishments will inspire others as well. She exemplifies the power of women, the power of education and the power of the human spirit.”
Williams has been working at the Winchester Rescue Mission, which for 50 years has served those facing homelessness, since 2020. There, she provides counseling on a part-time basis, and also works part-time as a clinical therapist at the behavioral health unit in Winchester Medical Center.
At the Rescue Mission, Williams “goes above and beyond to answer the call to serve our residents,” wrote Brandan Thomas, the mission’s executive director.
“Last year, she worked closely with a resident dying of cancer, not only giving him dignity and friendship during the end of his life, but reconnecting him with family before he passed,” he wrote. “There are many who are now housed, healthy and thriving because of her great work.”
Finding out she would be receiving the alumni award was a shock to Williams, who was so touched she burst into tears.
“I did take a moment and reflected on how I got there, going from somebody who had no self-esteem, no self-confidence,” she said. “Going to Laurel Ridge and having everybody wanting to help you and praising you. I’m honored that I’m doing something that really makes a difference.”
Prior to middle school, Williams had a close-knit group of friends growing up in Haymarket. But, in sixth grade, the children were divided between different schools, and she struggled to fit in. That struggle continued into high school where Williams wasn’t particularly gifted academically, athletically or musically.
“I fit in in the smoking area of my high school just fine,” Williams noted. “That just led me down the path of partying.”
She would end up partying – including drinking and using cocaine – for the next 25 years. Her partying continued after she got married.
But, deciding to get sober was a transformational moment in Williams’ life. She and her husband each completed the 28-day treatment plan at Edgehill Recovery Retreat Center in Winchester in 2007.
“I did not want to do it,” said Williams. “I was terrified to do it, but it turned out to be the best 30 days of my life.”
Unfortunately, her marriage ended several months later. She does, however, continue to work on a part-time basis at her ex-husband’s heating and air conditioning company, and they remain the best of friends and support each other to the fullest.
When she graduated from high school, Williams didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, but she did have a goal.
“I always dreamed of going to the University of Virginia,” she said.
One day, Williams came to a conclusion – “I think I’m going to go back to school, to Laurel Ridge, because I really want to help people.”
She decided to just take one class at first.
“I knew right then I had found my place,” she said.
Williams took so well to Laurel Ridge that she got an associate degree in liberal arts, as well as a certificate in education.
“I knew after I’d done two semesters that I wanted to get my bachelor’s degree,” she said. “I already knew I wanted to help people because of going through addiction and knowing how much better life is now that I’m sober.
“I put in 100 percent because I was getting As, and I was loving it. My next goal was ‘I’m not graduating this college without getting a 4.0’ I cried a lot trying to get it, but I got it.”
Psychology Professor Emeritus Stephen Wisecarver was a favorite of hers. Williams also became close to a fellow student she had met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – Jonny Novgrod. Novgrod was a work-study in the Student Life Office and was instrumental in getting her involved in campus activities.
At Laurel Ridge, Williams was in Phi Theta Kappa, an academic honors society for two-year colleges, on the All-Virginia Academic Team, involved in the Student Government Association and a work-study.
“Jonny and I became best friends,” she said. “We were going to change the world together.”
Both Williams and Novgrod graduated from Laurel Ridge in 2011, with the goal of becoming counselors. Sadly, Novgrod died in 2015.
“He’s always with me, and we’re still going to change the world together,” said Williams, who visits both his gravesite and the swing dedicated to him alongside the pond on the Middletown Campus. She has a smiley-face sunshine tattoo on her forearm because Novgrod “would always say, ‘Share your sunshine today.’ He would put that on Facebook every day.”
Losing Novgrod wasn’t the only serious challenge Williams faced after graduating from Laurel Ridge. She did accomplish her dream – transferring into the University of Virginia, but she tragically lost her brother, Stacey, shortly afterwards. His death came two years to the day after his wife had died. Williams then became her 5-year-old niece Shelby’s guardian.
After taking a semester off to spend time with Shelby, Williams moved with her to a little house in Scottsville, a small town near Charlottesville. For her final year at the university, she drove from Front Royal to Charlottesville three times a week.
Williams graduated from U.Va. with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2015. After that, she earned her master’s degree in social work from the Catholic University of America in 2019. She chose that program because it could be completed online, or in person if she felt she needed the extra support that in-class learning provided.
Currently, Williams is a supervisee in social work, working towards becoming a licensed clinical social worker. She provides various forms of counseling, including group therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing.
Williams first met Thomas through CrossFit. A motorcycle enthusiast, she was one of the 10 riders – and the only female rider – who accompanied him on a cross-country trip to raise money and awareness for mental illness and homelessness.
When she first started working at the Rescue Mission in 2020, she would always hear Thomas say “love people well,” recalled Williams, who is considering pursuing her Ph.D next.
“That stuck in my mind,” she said. “That’s my goal every day when I come to work – just love people well. I love people, I want to help people not just feel better, but get better. There is nothing more rewarding than loving a person well and helping them find the hope and joy they somehow lost along the way. Nothing. It is an honor and a privilege to serve the people I serve every day, and now, I can’t see myself ever doing anything else.”
Laurel Ridge Community College was known as Lord Fairfax Community College until June 2022. For consistency purposes, the college will be referenced as Laurel Ridge going forward.