Cheryl Sesnon. Photo by Karissa Carlson, The Evergreen State College.
Everything about Cheryl Sesnon screams success. At 58, she’s currently the executive director of Jubilee Women’s Center, a well-regarded, highly effective non-profit organization that helps women transition out of homelessness. Besides this Amazing Grace Award, she’s received a number of others: Harlequin’s “More Than Words” Award, the Aubrey Davis Award for Progressive Leadership, and Seattle University’s “Lead, Ignite Award,” just to name a few. And she was the leader behind FareStart’s legendary job training program, which boasted an 82% retention rate under her tenure and experienced explosive growth.
So it might seem surprising that Sesnon once thought of herself as doomed to a life of failure.
At 24, she suffered from chronic depression, low self-esteem, and substance abuse. She was in an abusive relationship. She attempted suicide.
“I realized I needed to either commit to dying, or to living,” she says. “I felt hopeless, I was on a negative, destructive path, and I had no idea how to get out of it.” Sesnon remembers standing on the sidewalk and watching happy people walking by and thinking they were stupid, that they didn’t know how awful the world really was.
To snap herself out of this bleak world view, she adopted the attitude that everything she assumed about the world was wrong and vowed to watch how happy, successful people lived their lives and learn from them. She got herself into therapy, took classes, and stopped feeding her anger toward the world. “It was coming from a place that was wired up wrong,” she says.
Now she considers herself an expert at how to get people to break out of the limiting patterns of their lives, and she clearly does so with compassion for how difficult change can be. “I understand being stuck in a certain way of thinking,” she explains. “It’s very real. You think it’s the way.”
Sesnon’s positive rewiring was so complete that it forever altered her career path. Early on, she launched a successful catering business, but ultimately, the work felt unsatisfying. “We were spending money to make money,” she says. “There was a piece missing for me.”
She found her heart’s work in non-profits, but she doesn’t consider herself a “bleeding heart.” Rather, that work feels solid to her, substantive. “Jubilee is my dream-come-true,” she says. Now she works with women whose life circumstances have brought them to a place where they feel stuck and don’t know how to live differently. “To work with women and meet them at that place, it means the world to me.”
At the start of our interview, Sesnon shared with me that she’d recently beat breast cancer after a nearly yearlong process that included a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. She describes this ordeal not in terms of her own struggles but for the remarkable experience of being cared for by others.
“I’m used to being on the service end,” she says. “I’ve never been on the receiving end of being surrounded by compassion and care. I felt so loved. Everyone—staff, residents, donors—were incredibly generous and supportive.”
Congratulations to Cheryl Sesnon for winning a ‘Granny,’ and may she continue to serve the women of Jubilee well with her talents and gifts.
About the Amazing Grace Award
The 'Granny' recognizes the outstanding achievements of women over 40. It’s named after the trailblazing character in my Dreamslippers Series, Amazing Grace, AKA Granny Grace, a seventysomething who solves crimes while pursuing her own spiritual path.
The first recipient of the award was indie writer Karen Nortman, 72, award-winning author of the Frannie Shoemaker mystery series.
The second was Cherie Althauser, 65-year-old yoga teacher, volunteer, and spiritual devotee.
Winners are profiled at www.catintheflock.com and receive a modest award self-funded by me.
A Note About My Involvement with Jubilee Women’s Center
I’m a Jubilee donor and have previously written about the organization for Seattle Woman.