By Samantha Sciarrotta
Talk to someone who knows Sandy Ewell, and they might tell you she just has a way with people. She’s skilled at building relationships, according to Antonette Saranin, and Joe Sprague won’t hesitate to call her a friend above a colleague. Marge Witman admires her ability to get and give respect, and Cathy Tomecheck appreciates her compassion.
Sit with Ewell for a few minutes, and it’s easy to see why the people who know her feel that way. Her soothing voice, calm demeanor and sense of humor are inviting; in her quiet moments, you can almost hear the gears turning in her brain.
Hers is a presence that her colleagues say they’ll miss when she retires as director of the Community District Alliance at the end of the month. Ewell has been with the CDA since 1998 and oversaw its change from the Community Education Recreation department 10 years ago. Jodie Glenn, a guidance counselor who was worked with the CDA before, will take over and start working with Ewell Sept. 1.
Ewell said now is just the right time to retire.
“The ideas aren’t coming as fast as they need to come,” she said. “Things are speeding up in the world, and it requires that same kind of level of urgency and program planning in growing this department. I’ve been looking for a while to do this.
Saranin, Witman and Tomecheck, her colleagues at the CDA, are quick to credit her with completely changing the direction of the program.
“She wanted to give the option of education but not saying it’s educational,” Witman said. “Fun educational. In my time here, which is 30 years, it’s gone from pretty itsy bitsy to big-time.”
The CDA manages school district services like the Performing Arts Center, before and after school programs and facility and field scheduling. It also hosts a summer program packed with sports, science, theater, art, outdoor and music camps—all new or improved under Ewell’s watch.
She’s also played a role in expanding the CDA’s GED and ESL offerings.
“It’s hard walking through that door,” she said. “Everybody’s going to think I’m stupid because I don’t have my diploma. Our feeling is that if you’ve made it all this way in your life without having the benefit of being able to read and write, you’re smarter than I’ll ever be. There’s also the feeling that there are some students, 17, 18, school isn’t for them. School is not for everyone, our traditional way of teaching, so they’ve acted out or they’ve gotten thrown out or they check out…it’s a place for people not just to get their HiSet (exam), but to regain their dignity.”
Observations like that are part of the reason Ewell had such an impressive run at the CDA, Sprague said.
“She’s very innovative, and she sees what’s going on, and she takes it in and makes a decision based on what she observes,” said Sprague, the principal at Bordentown Regional Middle School. “She’s not going to jump to a decision right away. She wants to do what’s best for the kids. A lot of her vision has been very progressive. It started off small and evolved into this tremendous entity. It’s attributed to her and how she saw things coming.”
Ewell, 67, is quick to credit her colleagues at the CDA and in the district with the group’s growth over the last 20 years, but her influence is clear.
Ewell grew up in Philadelphia and moved with her parents to Burlington when she was 16.
“That was the first time I attended a school where, like, 10 people looked like me,” she said. “That really flipped and changed my life, which was wonderful, actually.”
She attended Salem University in Virginia, where she double majored in speech therapy and psychology and minored in philosophy. After graduating she started working for the YWCA in Trenton as a part-time program director and worked her way up to CEO.
She said she learned early on in her career at the YWCA that adults can be quick to brush children off.
“Particularly children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, children on color, they think they have limited abilities to do things,” she said. “I was determined to disprove that.”
One of her first efforts at the YWCA was starting an arts program. Her goal was to bring top-quality instructors to Trenton.
“I didn’t want to just have a dance class,” she said. “I wanted to have a dance class that was taught in French, as it is supposed to be taught. I didn’t want to just have an art class where they did cute little things. There’s always a place for arts and crafts. The fine arts, not so much. The school district wasn’t giving them that, either.”
Ewell brought in an art teacher who she called “brilliant and kind of quirky.” The teacher sometimes had students redo their work, which shocked Ewell at first, but every time, the students came back with better pieces because the teacher knew when they weren’t trying their best.
Ewell said the program was so successful, state officials wanted her to recreate it in other places. Not possible.
“Other places have to have the will,” she said. “You have to be able to allow people to do what they do best. I couldn’t stand over her and say, ‘This is how I want you to conduct this class.’ I don’t know anything about that.”
That’s a refrain that’s followed her throughout her career—Ewell comes up with an idea for a new camp or class but isn’t afraid to ask for help when it’s something she might not fully understand.
Saranin said Ewell realized a few years ago that there weren’t many STEM or computer course or camp offerings within the district, so she took it upon herself to find an expert to help her.
“When we first started this gig here, coding?” she said. “Nobody ever heard of coding. No computers. You need to know something about technology. If it’s not your forte, you still need to understand. The direction the world is going in is one where everything is going to be automized very soon.”
She also recognized the need for a theater program to match the state-of-the-art Performing Arts Center when the new high school opened in 2006. She hired Stacie Morano, the technical director and theater manager at the high school, and Ewell says Morano completely changed the course of the arts in Bordentown. Her theater camps in the summer routinely fill up within hours of registration opening. Tomecheck remembers parents waiting in a line outside of the CDA office the day registration went live just to register for one of Morano’s shows.
Ewell lives in Bordentown with her wife, Darlene de la Cruz. The two have been together for 42 years and have an adopted daughter, Missy, who is 48 and lives in Albany. Ewell also has four brothers: Wayne, Pierce and twins Roy and Robbie. She is also the co-founder and president of Common Ground Institute, a consulting firm that works with nonprofits and corporations to find ways to help diverse staffs work together.
Her passion for diversity carried over into her role at the CDA.
“This community has become more and more diverse,” she said. “In the greater Bordentown area, 35 different languages are spoken. We have folks that are out neighbors now who are Turkish, Latina, from Eastern Europe, from South Asia, East Asia, from Haiti, African Americans. We need to have out staff look like that, too. We’re not all the way there, but we’re getting there. Children need to see people that they can respect who look like them. The folks that don’t look like them are amazing. I have folks that are so progressive, whose minds are so open, who understand that love is the driving factor when it comes to dealing with their children.”
And it’s that compassion that Sprague says he will miss the most. Sprague has worked in the district for 16 years, first at the middle school when it was still MacFarland and then at the high school as athletic director and wrestling coach.
He was looking for a second job during his second year in Bordentown and met Ewell when he worked as a CDA camp counselor. He spent several summers with the CDA, working with elementary-aged kids, overseeing the physical education aspects of the camps and then coordinating the wrestling camp.
Over those years, he developed a close friendship with Ewell.
“She’s someone that I can go to for advice, whether it’s in regards to my family or my job,” he said. “She’s influenced me just by watching what she does every day, how she approaches her job, how she approaches her life. She takes it one day at a time and realizes what’s important in your life, that your relationships with people supercede what you have to do that day. When you leave Sandy’s office, you remember what she says, and you remember how she made you feel. I walk out of there with goosebumps sometimes. I always feel like I’ve gotten better when I talk to her.”
Saranin, Witman and Tomecheck agreed. They and Ewell eat lunch together around a table in the CDA office every day and say people often walk in on the four of them laughing—though their friendship never gets in the way of work. Saranin said Ewell likes getting her hands dirty, visiting the camps and moving supplies back and forth.
“If she hears us on the phone out here and there’s a question about something that’s going on, she’s immediately out of the office,” Tomecheck said. “The first thing she’ll say is, ‘Is everybody okay?’ From in there, whatever she’s doing, she’s out here to see what’s going on.”
It’ll be tough to move on from that, Ewell said. She said it’s been a joy to work with her colleagues, and emphasized the importance of “with.” Each employee plays a vital role in her day-to-day tasks.
“I could take off forever, and everything would be fine,” she said. “That’s who I’m working with. Folks understand the importance of running a tight program, but not too tight.”
Ewell said she’s ready for the next chapter, but she’s not leaving the CDA with any regrets.
“A heart filled with love and gratitude from these women and all of the people that I’ve worked with,” she said. “That includes custodians, transportation, the drivers, the food service folks, the secretaries. It’s doesn’t happen, period, without that support. The accounting office. You can’t take any of that for granted ever.”