By Becca Taurisano
Sarah’s Guest House is tucked away in Strathmore across the street from Most Holy Rosary Church. Originally used as a convent, the 11-bedroom home provides a place for adults and their families to stay while they receive medical treatment in Syracuse. For the more than 18,000 guests who have stayed here, Sarah’s Guest House has truly been a home.
Founder Mary Keough opened Sarah’s Guest House in 1994 after Father Ahern of Most Holy Rosary asked her and her husband Dick Keough if they had a use for a small house owned by the church. Mary’s nephew Billy Johnson, diagnosed with leukemia at 22 years old, was traveling to New Hampshire and Minnesota to receive treatment, where they learned of the Hospital Hospitality House concept. Mary was interested in starting such a home away from home in Central New York.
Billy passed away in 1995 about a year after Sarah’s Guest House opened its doors but was able to serve on the first board and witness what Mary had started in his honor. A plaque with Billy’s photo now resides in the main entryway of Sarah’s Guest House. He was a beautiful person inside and out, according to Mary.
“He was really a good kid,” Mary said.
While he was in the hospital dying, all his college friends would visit, even asking to borrow money from Billy — and he gave without question.
“He never once complained. He never once said, ‘Why me?’” said Mary.
‘The people who will take anyone in’
The house has since become Mary’s passion and legacy. She was always the kind of person who took in others in need. Her two daughters, then 8 and 9 years old, used to complain they just would like one year where they didn’t have someone else living in their house. Mary and Dick had built their lives around helping others. They always had pregnant women or people coming out of jail staying with them. The couple was known as “the people who will take anyone in.”
Mary started off working in Transitional Living Services and Dick was self-employed running a program called HELP, which taught ex-offenders and low-income people how to repair appliances so they could get work. Dick also helped start Unity Kitchen, at the time the only soup kitchen in Syracuse.
So starting Sarah’s House — named after the wife of the Biblical Abraham, known for her hospitality — was hardly out of character. The Keoughs were seeking a place to open a hospitality house like those that helped Billy and his family. When Father Ahern approached Mary and Dick about a purpose for the little house across the street from the church in 1994, Mary said it was as if the “house met the dream” and everything fell into place.
In the early days, it wasn’t easy. Mary started Sarah’s Guest House with a $20,000 loan to rehab the original location. Her only workspace was a table and a folding chair. She cleaned all the bathrooms herself and did all the office work. She took a two-hour class on fundraising at the library and went to other area non-profits to ask how they did things. She set up a table at Syracuse hospitals to hand out information about Sarah’s Guest House.
Sarah’s Guest House was originally opened with the idea to house families of patients, but Mary soon learned they would need to take in the patients themselves. The venture was so successful that Sarah’s Guest House ultimately outgrew the little house. In 2004, the facility took over the former convent, where it can now house patients and caregivers, as well as provide space for those patients who needed space to be separated from the other residents, as in the case of a bone marrow transplant recipients, for example.
When Sarah’s Guest House moved from the original smaller house to the current location in 2004, Mary feared that they would lose some of the intimacy in the larger house. But that hasn’t happened.
“I don’t believe we’ve lost that at all,” Mary said. “I think the intimacy comes with the people.”
Making a guest house a home
Mary is the kind of person who instantly feels like an old friend. At 80 years old, she has perfected the art making people comfortable and her love of people, socializing, and having fun is evident in the stories she tells about Sarah’s Guest House. A conversation with Mary is peppered with laughter.
“You have to love what you’re doing,” Mary said. “We are great lovers.”
That love is evident as soon as you walk in the door, from being warmly greeted in the foyer by staff members to witnessing an incoming resident take a tour of the home. Mary credits the feeling of intimacy and care felt by residents and visitors to the staff of Sarah’s Guest House. In addition to Executive Director David Haas, Renee McCaffrey (development specialist), Meg Knittel (operations and office manager), Kim Snow (guest services), Paul Wrobel (accountant) and Syracuse University intern Isabella Caird round out the team.
“People make the difference,” Mary said. “The right people come at the right time.”
There are many touches that make Sarah’s Guest House feel like home, but the most striking is the presence of quilts everywhere.
“Quilts have always been part of the theme,” Mary said. “My personal philosophy was that the quilts represented who we are as human beings and the fortunate thing about the aging process is you kind of get to see how those pieces fit.”
Some of the quilts were made by Amish residents in lieu of payment and others were given as gifts. The quilts are displayed on the wall or draped over furniture and they serve not only a functional purpose, but as a reminder that we are all pieces of a bigger picture. For Mary, that picture includes Billy, without whom Sarah’s Guest House would never have happened.
“That’s part of the puzzle that the quilts speak to me,” said Mary. “That’s part of why it makes sense. We are not picked in this life to do what we do for no reason at all. I believe totally that there is a higher being and our lives are mapped out for us if we choose to accept the challenge. And it never looks easy and you might have to give up a little something at the moment you start but you get so much more back in return. Part of my philosophy is that if you are doing the right things for the right reasons, it all works out.”
A place to heal
Sarah’s Guest House is more than just a place to stay; it’s a place to heal. Mary’s ultimate vision for the house is to have a tranquil room where residents could have massages, meditate or receive other treatments that would facilitate healing. Sarah’s Guest House has common rooms where residents can relax and watch television or read but they do not have a designated meditation room yet. Mary hopes they will be able to provide this for residents in the future.
Sarah’s Guest House asks for $25 a night to stay, but they never turn away anyone who cannot pay.
“We see people at their most vulnerable,” said Mary. “It’s their house, we are here to serve.”
That philosophy is reflected in their tagline, “Our House, Your Home.”
“Some people might stay for a week and give us $10 and that is totally fine and we are appreciative so much of just that. Or a couple could come stay for a day and give us $100.” Mary said. “It’s the every day $10 or $25 donations that keep coming in that will always keep this house going.”
Last spring Sarah’s Guest House got a letter in the mail and a check for $10,000 from a man who had stayed 24 years ago and did not have money to pay for the room. His wife had been the patient and he was a small business owner from the North Country. He always felt that he owed a debt to Sarah’s Guest House because of the positive experience he had staying there.
“It’s connections that people make in their life,” Mary said. “It’s choosing a lifestyle. And I know I’ve chosen well.”
Sarah’s Guest House is celebrating 25 years of service with their Silver Anniversary: A Gala of Giving on April 26 at Traditions at The Links at Erie Village. Mary Keough will be honored at the event. Tickets are $125 per person and may be purchased by calling (315) 475-1747 or online at sarahsguesthouse.org.
Volunteers are always needed at Sarah’s Guest House to provide meals, transportation, or be a comforting presence to residents. To volunteer, contact Executive Director David Haas at (315) 475-1747 or firstname.lastname@example.org.