By Joel Hall
When Rainbow House open its doors to its first resident on November 15, 1988, Sarah Morgan was there.
Originally hired as a cook, Morgan quickly assumed the role of a child development worker and has since become a surrogate mother for over 5,000 children who have sought refuge at Rainbow House. In the wake of her retirement this month, Morgan will be honored Saturday for her 20 years of service to the county's temporary home for abused and neglected children in Jonesboro.
Morgan's retirement celebration will take place on Feb. 2 from 3-5 p.m. at the Virginia Burton Gray Recreation Center in Riverdale.
Affectionately known as "Miss Sarah" to the clients and staff of Rainbow House, Morgan is described by former co-workers as a pillar of the organization -- one who spent two decades working in an intense environment in which many workers burn out in less than a year.
"She was fueled by her love for the kids," said Taylor Brand, interim executive director of Rainbow House. While many children come to Rainbow House from turmoil, Brand said Morgan had a way of making sure everyone was safe.
"She never let her guard down," said Taylor. "She watched the children and understood the importance of proper supervision. They couldn't put very much past her. She knew the importance of consistency."
Clayton County Commissioner Virginia Gray, a Rainbow House board member for over 15 years, described Morgan as an institution.
"It's hard to imagine Rainbow House without Miss. Sarah," said Gray. She said Morgan was not viewed as an employee, but as a parent.
"She treats these kids like her own children," Gray continued. "Having that kind of presence there makes [Rainbow House] feel more like home, rather than an institution," the commissioner continued.
"She had this natural intuition in working with children," said Phil Kouns, founding executive director of Rainbow House until May 2005. "She could see through a lot of words and get to what a child was really thinking."
Kouns said Morgan's dedication to the organization went far beyond child care. In November of 2002, an electrical fire in a storage building next to the center tore through the Rainbow House, completely destroying the interior and all of the supplies, clothing and bedding inside.
"Sarah was actually the first one who smelled the smoke," and began to get children out of the building, Kouns said. For the following three months, Morgan stood outside the wreckage collecting donations of money and supplies so the Rainbow House could rebuild.
"It was so cold out there that November and she was out there everyday taking donations for us," said Kouns. "Whatever we needed to do, she was right there in the trenches ... she never complained."
Before coming to Rainbow House, Morgan spent 14 years working as a guard for Clayton County Regional Youth Development, processing children caught up in the legal system. That experience gave her a unique sensitivity to children, she said.
"I had to transport some of the hardest kids and take them to do their time," said Morgan. "Some were murderers, some were rapists, some were goofing off at the wrong place at the wrong time. None of these people ever threatened me though, because I treated them as human beings.
"When these kids get upset and call you names, it's not really you ... it's their situation," Morgan said in regard to the children at Rainbow House. "When I went up those steps, I left my problems at the door ... I put a smile on my face to mend their broken hearts."
Morgan said she would use her retirement to spend more time with her family, but planned on working at the Rainbow House as a part-time volunteer.
"I can't let my babies get away that easy," said Morgan. "I love them too much."