A life less ordinary
The Deaconess Community of the ELCA hasn’t been the same since Sister Sally arrived on her motorcycle nearly forty years ago. Whether working with underprivileged students from some of Philadelphia’s worst neighborhoods or tending her flock of students and animals at Silver Springs-Martin Lutheran School, Sister Sally Kerr does things her own way. Sister Sally’s story is heart-warming, inspiring and unforgettable – anything but ordinary.
The big book
Sally's remarkable story begins in rural Petersburg, Ohio, where her five brothers and two sisters represented a good portion of the town’s 300 residents. “I was the youngest of eight, so I learned early to fend for myself,” says the perpetually pleasant Sally.
Growing up in such a small community, church was an integral part of her family. By the time Sally was 10 years old she had decided on some form of vocation within the church. It took just two more years for that desire to take form.
“When I was 12, I was walking between classes and took a shortcut through the guidance counselor’s office,” Sister Sally remembers. “There I saw the biggest book I had ever seen in my life, so I opened it up and the first word I saw was deaconess.” Unsure what the word meant, young Sally went home and asked her mother what a deaconess was. “She read me the description and, right then, I decided I was going to be a deaconess,” Sister Sally says proudly.
Generally, we take the children that no one else wants and show them that God loves them.
After high school Sister Sally enrolled at Youngstown State University. “I only enrolled because, at that time, a college degree was required to become a Deaconess.” Sally graduated with a B.S. in Education and left the next day for the Deaconess Center, the former residence of training and retired Deaconesses in Gladwyne, PA.
Learning to teach
Sally spent her first year living at the Deaconess Center – also known as the “Mother House” – surrounded by Sisters who mentored her faith. “For the first time I was able to talk openly and analytically about my faith, with likeminded people,” beams Sister Sally. “Once I was at the center, it was clear the Deaconess Community was where I was meant to be.”
After her year at the Deaconess Center, and newly invested by the community, Sister Sally was ready for new endeavors. Her passion for school and love of theological questions led her to the Gettysburg Seminary, where she received a Masters in Religion.
With her studies at the seminary finished, Sister Sally spent the next five years teaching in inner-city Lutheran parochial schools in New Jersey and Philadelphia. Those experiences teaching underprivileged students stuck with Sister Sally and would eventually lead her to Silver Springs, another Lutheran school.
In 1978, Sister Sally began two more life-changing adventures. First, she started working at Silver Springs-Martin Luther School as a mental healthcare worker. And while working at the school, she also enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania doctoral program in Instruction and Curriculum.
“When it came time for my dissertation, I knew I wanted to find some way to combine what I was doing at Silver Springs with what I was learning in my doctoral program,” notes Sister Sally. “I decided to write a program for spiritual education tailored toward abused children.”
Life on the farm
Upon receiving her doctorate in 1983, Sister Sally accepted a full-time position at Silver Springs-Martin Luther School, a residential home for abused and hurting children between the ages of six and 14.
For the children (95% of whom come from mental institutions), Silver Springs is often the last hope in a series of foster homes. “Generally, we take the children that no one else wants and show them that God loves them,” say Sister Sally proudly. “We currently have 72 children, and, sadly, have a waiting list of many more,” notes Sister Sally.
The school’s 36-acre campus in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, along with its management by a very open-minded CEO, Ruth W. Bartelt, has enabled Sister Sally to start several unique programs.
“I have always felt that spiritual and religious education should not be taught in isolation. So one of the first things I did upon arriving at Silver Springs was to start a companion animal program.” The program started with a handful of chickens and goats. Sister Sally’s thinking behind the companion animal program was that abused children would learn to be kinder and gentler by caring for the animals. “We wanted to end the cycle of violence that the children were caught up in.”
Soon Silver Springs had a collection of animals that would make even Noah proud. “We now have chickens, goats, birds, fish, rabbits, geese and sheep.” Not one to sit on the sidelines, Sister Sally’s tiny 5-foot, 98 pound frame can often be found feeding the animals and even mucking the stalls with the children.
Sophie the wonder dog
Of all the animals at Silver Springs, perhaps none is more famous than Sister Sally’s dog, Sophie. Sophie, a beloved Shetland sheepdog, is a nationally certified therapy dog. Ever since Sophie came to the farm, she and Sister Sally have been almost inseparable. “We are so intertwined that students often call the dog Sally and me Sister Sophie.”
Sophie’s many talents include singing and consoling depressed students. “I can remember one time, a student was crying and Sophie came up to the girl and started to lick away her tears. The girl then laid down next to Sophie and fell asleep while sucking her thumb and twirling Sophie’s hair.”
The power of her message
With all of her experience, enthusiasm and knowledge, it is no surprise that Sister Sally is a very popular speaker. There are countless stories of people wanting to be around Sister Sally, like the local Rabbi who made sure his daughter took Sister Sally’s workshop sessions because of his respect for her inclusive, rather than exclusive, teaching methods.
Perhaps the best example of the power of Sister Sally’s message is the action of an elderly woman who heard Sister Sally speak just once. At the woman’s death, she bequeathed $300,000 for Silver Springs largely because she was so moved by what Sister Sally had to say.
In 1999, Sister Sally added yet another activity to her plate; she began teaching at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. The seminary learned quickly that Sister Sally is at her best when allowed to think on her own. “The most popular course I teach there is centered around helping the students create their own curriculum,” says Sister Sally. “By the time the semester is over, I guarantee the students will have at least two courses – and the idea for another – that they are prepared to bring back to their parishes.”
According to Sister Sally, “If the people I work with walk away knowing that God is in their hearts, then I have done my job.” Her passion for working with children and spreading God’s love transcends age, religion and social barriers. With the enthusiasm of a cheerleader, the devotion of a nun and a little help from a wonder dog, Sister Sally has done the impossible: She has turned kids other people thought were hopeless into hopeful youth who have experienced the power of God’s love.