Free Clinic director employs inquisitive nature to get the job done

Story by Grace James

Photos by Charlotte Ward

Following Summer Sage’s son’s diagnosis with autism, her brother suggested that her son wouldn’t know how hard she worked for him.

As if there were no other option, Sage immediately responded, “Yeah he will.”

For Summer Sage, her journey to becoming executive director of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic began when her son was diagnosed with autism.

Having graduated with a masters in communication and the arts from Regent University, and completing undergrad in performing arts, the healthcare realm was nowhere on her path. But her son’s diagnosis was like an unexpected detour in the road that has led her to today’s destination.

Upon her son’s diagnosis, doctors told Sage he’d never get things like humor and religion. And even more, that he wouldn’t understand just how much she loved him. Although that was the doctor’s job, those words deeply affected Sage.

“I thought, ‘Those are just such terrible things to say about any child, let alone to a parent and everything,’” Sage said. “I all of a sudden felt l was not equipped or empowered to parent my child, and I never felt that way prior to that moment. So it was kind of that part of my personality that says, ‘Don’t tell me I can’t, ‘cause I will just to prove you wrong.’ But it all of a sudden was more than that – it wasn’t just I can’t, don’t tell me that he can’t.”

Determined to find hope in the situation, she began searching for what she could do next.

“I’d never heard the word autism before so I just had to dig in and learn,” she said.

As she stuggled to find out how to best support her son and staying up late nights looking for answers, she found VCU’s disability services.

With the opportunity to join the Family to Family Network, Sage felt at home. The group consisted of parents who had children with disabilities, allowing them to talk and connect over shared experiences.

“There was affirmation and confirmation and hope, when all I had gotten from doctors was what wasn’t going to happen,” Sage said.

Thus, she unknowingly began her journey into healthcare.

“I called in as a parent first, to get help and support,” Sage said. “And then I learned about the Partners in Policymaking.”

With Partners in Policymaking, Sage learned how to become an advocate for herself and her child, and the history of the disability movement.

“I went to, like, the roots and the history of what evolved into the disability movement and how we talked about healthcare and person-first language,” Sage said.

Realizing the impact she could have, she wanting to get more involved, and applied for a board position on the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities. She’s now celebrating her sixth year on the board.

Heidi Lawyer, mentor to Sage and board director, recalls her first impression of Summer.

“She would ask a ton of questions about everything and it was slightly annoying but I recognized that her questions led us to deeper conversation, and I encouraged her to keep asking those questions,” Lawyer said.

Asking questions allowed Sage to become a better advocate for those with disabilities and the community around her.

“I just have been someone who has asked questions and persevered to find the answers and when I felt like there was lack of the patient’s voice in a lot of things, I found opportunity to be involved and help other families’ voice get amplified and be part of the decision-making process,” Sage said.

In the same way that she searched to find support for her son, she looks to support others in the community.

“She was not only passionate as a mother but always trying to figure out how to make big picture stuff work,” Dana Yarbrough, mentor and former employer to Sage at VCU, said.

Her passion for helping patients of the free clinic comes from another place of sensitivity — she’s been in the same shoes.

“Everytime I tried to get two steps ahead, I lost services and supports,” Sage said. “I’ve been that person that is all of our other community residents struggling to make ends meet.”

She’s received Medicaid, been on food stamps and received WIC.

“It wasn’t easy, and it’s really hard to say ‘I need help,’” Sage said.

And as a mother, she’s faced the struggles of needing support for her son.

“I have sat down and said, ‘look, I can be home caring for my child and receiving these services and supports but I start a part time job and those all go away.’”

Using her own experience of trying to maintain a living and access healthcare enables her understand the situation and know which questions to ask.

“She a very inquisitive person … I think that is a huge strength for the community because she asks the questions that need to be asked,” Yarbrough said.

Beginning January 2019, the Free Clinic expanded eligibility requirements, allowing more people to access its services.

“My life’s path has been to remove barriers,” Sage said. “Whether it’s barriers for my son, through advocacy and education; whether it’s here … how to access healthcare, how to access information. I truly understood that knowledge is power when it came to this process and this journey.”

Her journey to the Free Clinic may have been an unexpected one.

“I’m following a path that sort of falls in front of me,” Sage said.

Whenever she hits a roadblock, she knows how to find her way through.

“If I can get the information I need, anything is possible,” Sage said.

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