From Needing a Champion to Becoming One

June 28, 2014

Sarah Hoyle is an adoptive parent, artist, UMFS board member and ardent advocate for families dealing with mental illness. She shares her own story about handling her daughter’s mental illness, and how that has impacted her relationship with UMFS.

Twenty years ago, in their mid 40s, Sarah and her husband, Joe, weren’t ready to give up being parents when their two sons left the nest. The couple adopted two toddlers, Anna and Lara, from Russia. After Anna entered high school in 2008, she was admitted to a mental hospital four times. “This is my little girl,” Sarah remembers thinking as she left her daughter at the first hospital. The diagnoses varied from doctor to doctor — everything from a developmental delay to autism to a major depressive disorder. Anna was in freefall.

The shifting diagnoses didn’t affect the final outcome: Sarah had to leave her little girl in full-time residential mental health facilities, first the Virginia Treatment Center for Children and then the Child & Family Healing Center at UMFS. “It is surreal to leave your child with mental problems in a mental institution,” says Sarah. UMFS Adoptive Family Preservation helped Sarah through the meetings with teachers and psychologists, giving the family support. “Someone went with me to all the meetings,” Sarah remembers. “She was there to back me up.”

When Anna turned 18, she returned home to live and continued to attend Charterhouse School at UMFS.
Sarah was a stay-at-home mom, so she could spend the time needed to take care of Anna with the support of her “wonderful” husband and supportive sons and daughter. All have learned to adapt as part of loving Anna.

The Hoyles consider themselves lucky to have found UMFS, which has become part of the family. Beyond the direct services UMFS gave Anna, both Lara and Anna found a “grandmother” at Guardian Place, the senior living apartments affiliated with UMFS. Lara earned her Girl Scout Gold Award — the highest achievement for a Girl Scout — by organizing an art show featuring the art of students at UMFS’ Charterhouse School.

Sarah, too, has been inspired by her experience with Anna and UMFS, and is giving both time and money to UMFS. She is the parent representative on the UMFS board and is on the committee for the UMFS Systems of Care grant. The committee hires parents who have gone through the mental health system to help others find their way.
“I let people know what it’s like for the parent of a child they are serving,” Sarah says. The journey is admittedly tough, and without support, many families don’t get the help they need when they need it.

In addition to her work with UMFS, Sarah also works with the Children’s Mental Health Resource Center where she is a parent support partner, teaching other parents to speak up for what they need.

Throughout the chaotic years, Sarah continued to create art as a way for her to keep calm and sane. Every painting has a memory of what was happening with Anna at that time. She teaches watercolor classes, but she has her art students write their tuition checks to UMFS, not to her.

When Anna graduated from high school, she moved to Gateway Homes, a residential facility for people with mental illnesses located in Chesterfield. She lives in her own apartment and takes care of herself. She and her mother talk on the phone every night. She is happy.

Lara is now on her way to Virginia Wesleyan College to become a social worker, inspired in part by her family’s experience with UMFS. She and her parents have learned that you “just do the best you can … and accept Anna for who she is.” The best you can do is, however, a lot better with the support of people who understand what you are going through, like UMFS. “UMFS is a class act,” she said. “They do it right.”