Inside Track: Lowe discovers a heart to serve

Executive director of Emmanuel Hospice describes herself as a ‘glass-half-full’ type of person.
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Sara Lowe. Courtesy Emmanuel Hospice

How do you want to live?

This has become an integral question for Sara Lowe in her personal and professional life.

A daughter of two public school teachers, Lowe’s passion for giving back was instilled in her at a young age. Whether volunteering with her parents and sister at church or a local food pantry, her family always made service a priority.

“I think like for most people, our story begins with the people who we are surrounded by while we were growing up, and so that’s no different for me,” Lowe said.

Her family remains focused on serving others, and she said the role that giving back plays in her family’s life is alive and well to this day. Her parents continue to volunteer in their retired years, she said, and her sister, now living in Nashville, also remains an involved and engaged member of her community. 

“That has just been a part of who we are as a family unit, (and) that doesn’t happen by accident,” Lowe said.

SARA LOWE
Organization:
Emmanuel Hospice
Position: Executive director
Age: 41
Birthplace: Holland
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Husband, Elliott; daughter, Avery; son, Hudson; and “fur baby” Bailey
Business/Community Involvement: Home Care and Hospice Association of Michigan board member; Rotary Club of Grand Rapids member; North Kent Aquatic team president
Biggest Career Break: The opportunity to be a part of the formation and growth of Emmanuel Hospice. “To be a part of really its roots and its growth has given me an incredible number of opportunities to grow and expand my skillset and learn from people that have walked alongside me. This has just been a really incredible opportunity to have this job.”

In middle school, Lowe was presented with her first opportunity to travel abroad and share her altruistic nature with underserved communities in the rainforest of Peru. She later joined a mission trip to Honduras in high school and continued to pursue international service in a study abroad program in her undergrad years, where she spent time helping women suffering from HIV and AIDS at a clinic in South Africa. Lowe credits these experiences with “changing her lens” and fueling not just her passion, but a lifestyle of serving and being a caregiver to others.

She is the executive director of Emmanuel Hospice, a provider of compassionate end-of-life care for patients and their families, which served nearly 700 patients in eight West Michigan counties in 2021. Since 2012, she has led a team that now consists of 85 individuals to respond to community needs in pursuit of the organization’s mission as an interfaith partnership providing spiritual and physical care and creating a peaceful experience for the dying and their loved ones.

Lowe said her work has instilled a profound sense of gratitude and affords her a unique perspective on life.

“I think when you do this work, you’re reminded time is limited for each of us here. I think most people would probably describe me as someone who can find joy in most anything and as a glass-half-full type of person, because none of us are guaranteed tomorrow,” she said. “And so, part of the personal gift of the work is the perspective it gives you on life.”

Though she obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Grand Valley State University where she also led the Student Association of Social Workers, she considers herself “lucky” for getting a job in her desired field right out of college and finding herself in the leadership position she’s in today.

Lowe recalls walking into her first day as a social worker at the Ingham County Medical Care Facility and wondering how she would ever remember everyone’s name and further, how she would build a relationship with each person.

“Then when I went back to grad school and left there about a year and a half later. I knew each of their names and was in a relationship with each of them,” Lowe said.

It also was at that same medical care facility where she discovered her passion for working with the elderly and those approaching the end of their lives following her first hospice experience.

“I remember sitting at my first bedside of someone who was coming to the end of their life. So, you know, it was the active stage of dying. And I felt just so privileged and honored to be there in that very personal moment in time, and I just knew that part of my next step needed to be hospice,” Lowe said. “I could walk you right to that room I was in at that time, if I walked in that building again today.”

With her newly discovered passion for hospice care, Lowe obtained her master’s degree and was hired at In House Hospice, which she refers to as a hospice startup serving Grand Rapids at the time. Although she was hired as a social worker for the company in 2006 without any direct hospice experience, she went on to learn the ins and outs of hospice care, from social work and volunteer coordination to grief support, intake and community outreach.

“I really am so grateful for the person who hired me into that job, her name is Brenda Schoenherr. And we continue to work together as colleagues now and she continues to work in the hospice field, as do I. And I’m so grateful for her taking a chance on someone who was a new grad without any direct hospice experience and to give me that opportunity,” Lowe said.

She worked for In House Hospice until 2010 and later was hired as the director of social services for St. Ann’s Home in Grand Rapids. Though her heart was still with hospice care, the on-site day care offered by St. Ann’s was optimal with her young children at the time, and she knew she could remain connected to her passion of making a difference for people approaching the end of their life.

Lowe respected that the organization did everything it could to ensure the environment for a person approaching the end of their life was calm, peaceful and a place where they could be compassionately honored for who they are and what they’ve done, as well as a place where the family feels supported.

“The sisters (of St. Ann’s) are on-site and their convent is right there, and they live where people receive care from them. Every person there is like an extension of their family, and they really look at death as the beginning and not an end,” Lowe said. “So, when you do that, when you approach death in that way, it feels different. And while there’s definitely an acknowledgment of the sadness and grief of losing someone here, there is also a celebration of the good work they’ve done while they’ve been here.”

Shortly after joining the organization, it was made clear to her that part of St. Ann’s organizational plan was to take its special end-of-life care and offer it to the larger community beyond its walls. It was then that she moved into a business development role alongside organizational leadership to pursue the expansion of hospice care and other growth initiatives without having obtained any prior experience in executive governance, starting a business, or raising money.

“There’s a lot of times in our lives where we can say we make plans, and then, you know, we make plans and then God laughs,” she said.

Derived from the shared vision of how the organization could reach and impact more people, she and the St. Ann’s team pursued partnerships with other senior living communities with the same values. From there, Lowe was entrusted with a startup and a first-time joint venture to launch Emmanuel Hospice as its executive director, which also brought in Clark Retirement, UMRC/Porter Hills and Sunset Retirement Community. She credits the board and leadership of all four organizations past and present for being a large part of the success of Emmanuel Hospice, as well as her development into the leader she is today.

Though her path to becoming the leader of an organization centered on her passion may have been unconventional, Lowe said she knows she’s in the right place.

“I kind of laugh when I think this is the only job I’ve ever had that I never applied for. … Again, all of this is because of the people inside of St Ann’s. Sister Gabriela (and former executive director) Steve Rolston were willing at that time to take a chance on me and trust their part of the vision for hospice with me, and I’m just so grateful to (them) for trusting me with that,” Lowe said.

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