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Narcotics professor, florist found faith

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Sandi Sale placed the last flower in the vase of a purple and yellow bouquet, but she wasn’t finished yet. “This is my signature,” said Sale, as she crowned the creation with a tiny string of twinkling lights. The glowing touch fits well with Sale’s cheerful personality and even the metallic sequins on her white jacket.

Putting in the extra effort is how the 66-year-old approaches her work as an adjunct professor at Northern Virginia Community College, and how she treated her patients as a nurse and how she mentored women in jail. Her wide-ranging interests became pieces that all fit together when she found the Catholic faith two years ago, said Sale.

“Putting faith with my experience and my knowledge and my passions is crucial for me,” she said. “I waited a lifetime to get to where I am.”

Sale grew up in Philadelphia and has one younger brother, Robbie. They were baptized in the Lutheran faith, but as she grew up, Sale said she never connected with one particular Christian denomination. She earned a degree in nursing in 1979 and started work at Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly in the intensive care nursery, often caring for drug-addicted infants. She also cared for addicted mothers who were encouraged to abort. “I said, ‘Why are you making these women feel so bad?’ If we want them to stop using drugs, then don’t make them feel bad — lift them up.” Sale loved the work, but after a while was laid off.

Her friend encouraged her to work with detoxing adults at Fairfax Hospital. She told her friend, “I work with babies; I don’t know how to work with adults.’ She said, ‘Same thing, they just talk.’ ” So Sale became licensed through the state as a substance abuse treatment provider. As her interests and career aspirations grew, her time in the classroom did, too. In 2000, she earned her bachelor’s in social work and a master’s in counseling education in 2005, both from George Mason University in Fairfax.

Sale has worked in mental health, in a treatment center for youths and in an outpatient facility. One memorable job was working for the state with pregnant inmates in the five county jails of Northern Virginia.

“I was doing social work and counseling groups and case management. The stories you heard were horrific,” she said. But she also witnessed amazing transformations — inmates who now are married with children or who own businesses. “I’ve run into multiple people that I’ve helped and they said, ‘We looked for you.’ There are three women I have known for years,” she said.

Working in jails piqued her interest in the criminal justice system and prison management. One of her most recent educational pursuits was attending the Drug Enforcement Administration training academy at Quantico. “I can run through a range, I can break down a door,” she said with a laugh. She volunteers at Prince William County Adult Detention Center with the crisis intervention team, a group that serves inmates with mental health problems.  She’s proud of the way the jail guards and staff treat the inmates. Sale said that of the 1,000 inmates, 35 percent have mental health issues. Soon, there will be a wing of the jail to accommodate them.

“It is the most humane, respectful place I’ve ever worked,” she said of the jail. She even takes her students on tours of the facility as part of the class she teaches at NOVA, Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. “I’m teaching my students that if you treat someone the right way, you won’t have half the battles,” she said.

That philosophy extends to the way she interacts with everyone, including her students. At the beginning of the school year, she tells them she’s happy they chose to take her class. She gives out her cell phone number. Sale knows she won’t get inundated with calls, and it lets the students know she’s there for them. “What if they need me?” she said. “For some reason people forget to welcome — that’s my keyword. You gave this wonderful individual a feeling of importance. How hard was that?”

Flowers are another way Sale likes to spread a little kindness to others. A few years ago, she took a class on floral design. By happenstance, her teacher was a social worker who donated flowers to women’s shelters. Sale fell in love with floristry and spent three years off and on at a floral design school in Manhattan. She also volunteered arranging flowers at women’s shelters. “It was the first time (the women) ever had flowers. Can you imagine?” she said. “They would come up to me and cry. I would teach them and I would say, ‘Put them next to your bedside because you deserve flowers — always remember that.’ ” Now she has her own small business — Sandi’s Floral Creations.

A few years ago, Sale took her flowers and retired to the beach. But after six months, she found she was miserable. So her brother invited her to stay with his family for a while. One Sunday, she joined them for Mass at St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax.

“Everybody seemed so peaceful, and the welcoming was amazing,” she said. “I said, ‘What planet is this?’ And my brother goes, ‘That’s our faith.’ I said, ‘How do I get that?’ ” So Sale was back in the classroom again, this time attending RCIA. In 2017, she was received into the church.

Sale’s Catholic faith is “the best gift I’ve ever had,” and so she uses her talents to give back to the church. Sale arranges the flowers for the altar at St. Leo Church and occasionally at diocesan events. She likes to volunteer with the youth group and is a member of the Legion of Mary.

“It is finally a place where I feel I belong. I was meant to be here, and the joy I have every day from belonging and finding my path is more than I can ever say,” said Sale. Her hope is to bring people the light of Christ through all she does. “I waited 60-some years to get this gift — I want to shout it from the treetops.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018