The odds are frightening, but Sarah takes them on


October 15, 1995|By Brian Sullam

SARAH BLAIR has probably seen too much for a 16-year-old girl.

Her mother has gone through two divorces. She has seen her family's disputes covered by the newspapers. She, along with her mother, was evicted from her home. She has sat through more court proceedings in the past two years than many lawyers who practice in Carroll County.

Despite these burdens, the junior at Westminster High seems to wear a smile all the time. When Sarah was a baby, she was given the nickname "Sunshine." It still fits because her smile is as bright as the noonday sun.

We have all seen the made-for-television movies about the children of divorced parents who misbehave, get into drugs and alcohol, drop out of school and end up with miserable lives.

With the large amount of divorce in American society, too many children's lives have deteriorated after the break-up of their parents. Due to economic pressures of life on a reduced household income and burdened with emotional distress, many children of divorce never have the chance to realize their potential.

Island of calm

Sarah, however, is an example of a person who can establish her own island of calm in the midst of the stormy turmoil around her.

"I am a very concentrated person. When I am at school, I focus on school. When I am cheerleading, I focus on cheerleading," she says. "However, divorce and the trouble my mother has experienced are always in the back of my mind."

Dressed in a black sweatshirt she designed for Westminster's cheerleading squad and blue jeans, Sarah looks like a typical teen-ager.

At my invitation, she dropped by the office to talk about the effect that divorce has on children.

Her mother is Kathleen Murphy, the former wife of Lloyd Schaeffer. Sarah's father was her mother's first husband. Mr. Schaeffer is Ms. Murphy's second husband.

During the past three years, Ms. Murphy and Mr. Schaeffer have been engaged in a pitched, take-no-prisoners, conspicuous battle over child support, the disposition of the family house and Ms. Murphy's visitation rights to an adopted son.

Since the breakup of her marriage, Ms. Murphy's life has been spiraling downward, dragging Sarah with her.

As part of the divorce order, Ms. Murphy has had to pay child support to her former husband, whose family owned Schaeffer Lumber, the well-known Carroll County building supply house. He won custody of their adopted son. As part of the order, Circuit Court Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. ordered Ms. Murphy to pay her former husband $300 a month.

This payment would drain the family budget because Ms. Murphy is a bank teller who earns about $7 an hour. She is a self-confessed "deadbeat mom" because she hasn't made her child support payments for months. She has several court judgments against her, and theoretically could be locked up like the county's "deadbeat dads."

Her mother's precarious financial condition is always on Sarah's mind.

Three years, six houses

In three years, Sarah has moved into six different houses.

While all of her friends have obtained their driver's licenses, Sarah has not been able to get hers. Since the school system dropped driver's education, she hasn't been able to afford a private driver's ed course.

She hasn't been able to take a trip to Hersheypark with her friends because she can't afford the admissions fee.

Sarah had to borrow $190 so she could participate in a yearbook seminar last summer at Loyola College.

"I don't have a good sense of the future because everything in my life is so unsteady," she said.

Nevertheless, Sarah is a model young person. She is an honor roll student. As a freshman, she joined Westminster High's cheerleading squad. This year, Sarah is captain of the fall cheerleaders. She is a co-editor-in-chief of the yearbook. She has volunteered at soup kitchens and at Carroll County General Hospital, putting in about triple the number of hours she needs to fulfill her school community service requirement. Last summer, she also worked two jobs -- at the Lerner store in Cranberry Mall and at a McDonald's on Route 140.

She smiles when asked whether any of her friends can understand what has happened to her. "I can't really relate to them," she says. "I listen to their worries, but they are so different from mine."

Is she jealous of her school mates? "I look at my friends and think how lucky they are. They are always provided for," she says. "For the past five years, people have been telling me it will get better, but it hasn't."

Despite occasional feelings of resignation, she remains remarkably resilient and focused. Her goals are to attend college and to win a scholarship.

She tells herself that she is a strong person and can surmount her current difficulties. "I still have a life to live," she says, "and I am going to live it to the fullest."

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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