Lisa Lee Savage wakes up in the morning looking forward to work, where she spends her day helping people in need. After work, she goes home to sleep in a bed with a roof over her head.
On the outside, Savage seems like any other woman — how she got there is what makes her unique. She was a substance abuser, shae broke the rules, and she also overcame tragic adversity before getting a job and an apartment of her own.
“I’ve known Lee for 4 or 5 years now,” said Kim Sabatino, a volunteer and resident at GRACE Marketplace. “She’s been clean for quite a long time now and has totally changed.”
After 13 years in prison, including a two-year-stay in solitary confinement, Savage felt trapped and traumatized for years. After being released, prison became a nightmare she never wanted to revisit.
But to her surprise, without breaking a single law, she was back in prison.
Savage applied to be a volunteer at GRACE, and not long after she was accepted, she became homeless and in need of the shelter’s services on Sept. 5, 2014.
She went from sleeping in the same bed as the person she lived with to an overhang behind the GRACE Welcome Center — a former Gainesville prison now used to provide housing and other services to the homeless.
Savage said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of her time in prison, so living in a former prison was scary and strange.
“But I knew there had to be a reason for me to be here. It wasn’t just this is the end of the world, the end of the road,” she said. “Instead of running and getting high, I faced my fears.”
To cope with the haunting environment, Savage reached out for counseling from a GRACE client advocate who taught her how to meditate. She also said she participated in Narcotics Anonymous, a 12-step recovery program.
She was persistent and volunteered between 8 and 14 hours every day. Finally, she found a more comfortable home in the GRACE dormitory on Oct. 1.
A few weeks later, she started taking online classes and working toward earning a degree.
She decided to apply for a scholarship, and she asked Jon Decarmine, executive director of operations at GRACE Marketplace and an old friend, for an accompanying letter of recommendation.
“I told her it would be difficult, but I could not think of anyone who was working as hard as she was with so many obstacles,” Decarmine said. “She didn’t give a damn and kept working, so I was more than happy to recommend her.”
With the help of GRACE administration and a peer specialist at Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, Savage received the scholarship a month later to become a recovery support specialist.
“It blew me away,” she chuckled. “I didn’t expect that to happen.”
She was still volunteering and taking classes when a volunteer from Volunteers of America — a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping vulnerable groups, including veterans, elderly and former inmates — came to drop off donations at GRACE. The volunteer was especially interested in Savage.
Savage was contacted later, and after talking about how great her life was — in the dorm, in school and helping people — she was awarded another scholarship, this time from Volunteers of America to become a peer support specialist.
“So, I get to take all the pain I’ve been through in my life and all the struggles that I didn’t think had meaning and use them to help other people, to give them hope and help them heal,” Savage said. “That’s what I think I’ve always wanted to do.”
Life only went uphill for Savage from there.
Because of the work she did every day, Decarmine said she was offered a job at GRACE.
“If she wasn’t sleeping, she was volunteering or cleaning or doing school work and trying to get out as quickly as possible,” he said. “So, we built a relationship around that.”
When Savage was hired at GRACE, she decided her life would forever be devoted to helping others. She now works as an administrative assistant and receptionist at the GRACE Welcome Center.
In February, she moved into an apartment through GRACE housing services. They paid the first month’s rent, but she has taken care of it since.
“Every day it’s just one foot in front of the other,” she said. “If you keep going in the right direction, it’s going to happen. And it did happen for me.”
Sabatino, who met Savage when she was homeless, supports her every step of the way and will soon be able to tell her own happily-ever-after story as well.
Savage hopes her story can not only inspire others to help themselves but can also encourage community involvement at GRACE.
“May it be monetary or time, we graciously accept it,” she said. “(The shelter’s) been my saving grace.”