GILLETTE — It’s often said that one’s life can change in the blink of an eye. On the Monday of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which in Wyoming also is known as Equality Day, one woman had her life change with a phone call.
On the other end of the line was Suzie Renken, a crisis worker at Gillette Abuse Refuge Foundation, calling to ask a simple question.
“I’m assuming you still need a car, right?” Renken asked the woman.
“Yeah,” the woman said, unsure of why she was being asked such a question.
“Well, there’s a gentleman who’s donated his car to us, and I’m calling to see if you want it,” Renken said.
“And I just froze,” the woman said.
Just like that, Sarah’s life had been changed.
While that was unexpected and positive, Sarah’s story is one driven by some very different life-changing events.
Where to begin Sarah’s story? For starters, her name isn’t Sarah.
“I have been in a very toxic and unhealthy relationship that eventually turned abusive,” Sarah said. “In the beginning, it was just a couple of punches and shoves.”
But things escalated until, one night, a neighbor could hear the commotion and called the police.
“I never called,” Sarah said. “I was too afraid.”
Her partner was arrested, but Sarah made attempts after that to reconcile the relationship. It didn’t work and she finally cut ties for good.
Sarah came to Gillette in the fall, fleeing an abusive relationship that she’d tried to save too many times. She came to Gillette because, as far as she knows, her abusive former partner doesn’t know anybody here. Sarah hopes to keep it that way; her ex-partner can’t know she’s here.
She learned of GARF shortly after she arrived in Gillette.
“I contacted them and they didn’t hesitate,” Sarah said. “They moved me right in. I stayed there about a month, and they were nothing but amazing. I don’t know where I’d be right now without all of their help.”
After her stay with GARF, Sarah stayed in Gillette. She hadn’t really talked to anyone from the organization in about three weeks when Renken called her with the unexpected news.
A car. Free and clear.
Sarah said she hadn’t had a car in about 18 months. She’d had to go into a treatment program when she was still together with her ex, and when she returned found out the ex had let “a bunch of idiots” mistreat and misuse her car.
She was without transportation since.
“It’s a 2004 Chevy Malibu,” Sarah said of her new ride. “He put new brakes on it, did an oil change, brand new tires, it looks like. And he cleaned the whole interior of the car.”
Not only that, the donor also left her $200 for registration and tags and a gift card to buy some gas.
But she didn’t have a clue who he was. She thought she would get to meet her benefactor, but he wanted to remain anonymous. Sarah wrote him a letter, one she described as possibly being “overboard” in expressing her thankfulness. She trusted that GARF would deliver it for her.
The donor, who wished to remain anonymous, said he hoped other people might follow his lead. “If people have vehicles, they might be able to get a little bit of money out of them, but you can do a lot more good in the world by getting those vehicles in the hands of people who need them,” he said.
There’s a lot more value in changing someone’s life for the better than the $1,500 or $2,000 an old car might put in your pocket, he said.
“We fail to establish our civic duty in this country more often than not, so whatever you can do to help your fellow man is a good thing,” he said.
On the day after the donation, Renken drove Sarah around town to renew her driver’s license, to get the car registered in her name and to get insurance for the car. GARF even paid for three months of insurance.
“You don’t even have to say anything to me,” Renken recalled telling her. “I already know how grateful you are.”
Renken remembered how tightly Sarah hugged her after everything had been squared away.
“When I sat in it and started it up and got ready to leave, that’s when I broke down and cried,” Sarah said, her voice wavering as she steeled herself against crying one more time. “Very overwhelmed, but in a good way; an emotion I have never experienced.”
“Why me?” Sarah remembered asking Renken in the moment. “Stuff like this never happens to people like me. Things like that tend to go toward women with children.”
Renken couldn’t think of a better recipient.
“She was a broken woman,” she said. “She was just so thankful for everything we had done. She’s just a loving and humble woman.”
Sarah’s question carried additional weight, as she considered herself, her circumstances and her adopted state of Wyoming.
“Being in the LGBTQ community is not always the easiest, especially when you’re in a place like Wyoming,” Sarah said.
She didn’t know how to fully describe what she meant; it was mainly a sense of being different from what people expect because of her sexual orientation.
“I don’t think it’s anything horrible,” she said as she tried to imagine where Wyomingites’ seeming discomfort with LGBTQ people came from. “It’s old traditions. Most people that live in Wyoming come from the cowboy days, been here for generations — it just gets passed down generation to generation.
“When people start changing and start coming into the community, they’re not only outsiders, they’re different. People don’t know how to handle that because they weren’t raised around that. And I get that.”
But GARF, on Equality Day, had defied that characterization of Wyoming.
“For them to not only offer (the car) first even though I don’t have a child right now, but I’m also in that community, it just showed me that they never looked at me that way,” Sarah said. “I was just a woman that’s in need. I was never judged, not for a second.”