Sarah Gager’s decades-long philanthropic journey started with dirty water.
As she globetrotted through countries including Jamaica and Denmark, Germany and Bermuda and small villages in Mexico, Gager worked with teams to design sewage treatment plants and pumping stations that could transform wastewater into a form that could be used again.
She was putting her exceptional environmental engineering skills to work for communities around the world (supporting projects from Egypt to Brazil), deciphering complex calculations to figure out how water could be filtered, cleaned and recycled. While saving a natural resource was rewarding, she sensed something was missing. “It wasn’t helping people directly,” she felt. Gager—who grew up in Cheshire and resides in Washington, Connecticut—eventually transitioned to a career in higher education: teaching, advising students about their academics, and now serving as the dean of student services at Naugatuck Valley Community College (NVCC) in Waterbury. “I came from a family where we felt the need to help others and give back. My mom was a teacher, so I always kind of had it in the back of my mind that I would want to get involved in teaching,” she acknowledged. Early on, she noticed something. “When I was first teaching, I would always teach at night, which tends to be a population that has other obligations during the day, whether they are working or handling childcare or whatever…. And it was almost uncomfortable for students to say that they needed anything, but they did.” Soon Gager was sharing healthy snacks in class, adding a rack of used business attire (donated from her friends) at the school so students had clothes for job interviews, and helping campus and community groups organize clothing drives. Why? “Because of what I saw—growing needs for basic supplies, food and clothing, specifically among students that were undocumented.” she said. Gager wasn’t done. She has since established the Gager Family Fund at Connecticut Community Foundation where contributions by Gager and her family will be used to help students at NVCC and Northwestern Connecticut Community College complete their educations. Gager intends that her fund will provide students scholarships, wages for on–campus jobs and money for basic expenses such as transportation, food, clothing or childcare—which often pose barriers to students’ progress. Gager has witnessed their hardships firsthand. “We had some students last year who had damaging fires in their apartments or their homes and they lost their textbooks and things like that,” she said. Another student was challenged to cover the costs of buses and taxis to get to his internship. Many others came to class hungry, a need now being addressed through an on-campus food pantry funded, in part, by the Foundation. “It’s not about giving them large sums of money, necessarily. But, for a student that hasn’t eaten, $50 is a very large amount of money,” she observed. Gager has also become a member of the Women’s Giving Circle at Connecticut Community Foundation, joining with nearly 90 women in Greater Waterbury and the Litchfield Hills who seek to improve the lives of women and girls in the region by turning their collective donations into grants to local organizations. Says Gager, “They always say the more you give, the more you receive back in so many different ways. It’s not all about the money. Life is much richer than the dollar bill.” After this year’s commencement ceremony at NVCC, she reflected. “Sitting on stage and seeing the graduates walk past me and knowing on a personal level many of them and their struggles, it was so heartwarming to see their accomplishments. Many made eye contact with me and shared a great big smile as we exchanged ‘thumbs up.’ That’s what it is all about—they made it.” Top photo: Sarah Gager at the Women Give! event hosted by Connecticut Community Foundation in June 2018. (Photo by Dorian Mode Photography)