SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — “To me, it’s been another child,” Sarahlyn Phillips shared about Assisting Working Women in Need, the community organization she founded two decades ago. “I have five grown daughters, so this was my sixth child.”
Phillips tells WSAV.com NOW that the decision to end services provided by AWWIN, which have helped over 7,000 local families, was far from easy.
“To be able to say that AWWIN is closing our doors, that’s very emotional for me,” Phillips said.
The nonprofit was born following her and her family’s escape from an abusive marriage.
“It ended in a bad way; my ex-husband tried to shoot me and three of my daughters,” Phillips revealed.
“I was not gainfully employed, just working a job, and about a year later, I was dismissed from that job, and being dismissed just made things even worse,” she said.
Phillips and her children occasionally found themselves homeless during the rough period.
It’s when Phillips decided to begin the organization she says God had given her to start some years prior, but back then, she felt financially and mentally unready to get it off the ground.
Being hired for a role at Carson Products, now known as L’Oreal USA, helped supply her with the income and resources needed to work on developing AWWIN.
“I’d been through the homelessness, I knew what it was to have your car repossessed, to be put out of the doors with your children, not to have enough food to eat in your home,” Phillips said, adding, “So I knew that those were the type of services that I need to give back to.”
Professional development was the first service AWWIN offered out of a lab on the second floor of Saint Philip Monumental AME Church in Savannah, where WSAV.com NOW met Phillips.
“We were here for about eight years,” said the founder, endearingly called “Miss AWWIN” by some in her community.
Taking a nostalgic stroll around the abandoned lab, now used as storage, she was surprised to stumble across a 2001 plaque awarded to AWWIN still hanging on a wall.
“AWWIN, Inc. Humanitarian Group of the Year,” it read. Phillips took the keepsake with her.
The souvenir was a reminder of all she had accomplished through her nonprofit in 20 years of service to her community, which included offering the kind of support that allowed women to become self-sufficient in their lives.
“It’s bittersweet; sometimes at night I lie and I think about, you know, actually letting this go,” Phillips said as her voice cracked.
“I think we’ve done a good job,” she continued. “I’ve had some great volunteers, my family, my daughters, they’ve been awesome; not many daughters will stand by their mothers the way my daughters have stood by me, and then my new husband, not many men would do what he has done, as well.”
Her declining health is one of two reasons behind the painful choice to end AWWIN.
Phillips has battled bone and breast cancer in the past. She’s gone through open heart surgery and a bone marrow transplant. She shares that the bone cancer remains, leaving her to require treatment for the rest of her life.
Though Phillips has triumphed over Stage 2 breast cancer once before, she says she’s recently been re-diagnosed.
“When you run a nonprofit, you need to be able to be in the public, to be able to run here and run there, to take a phone call and go whenever somebody says come,” Phillips said, adding that due to her health, she’s no longer in that position.
“This is the decision that I’ve made after praying about it and really, really thinking and crying over it,” she said.
She plans to spend the rest of her life enjoying her grandchildren and spending quality time with her husband, daughters and other loved ones as she looks after her health.
“I know that God is yet a healer because he still has me here,” Phillips said.
Lack of funds also drove her tough choice to close AWWIN’s doors.
She says she wishes she had the money to keep her organization open, allowing her to pay a new leader to run it.
“Nobody’s gonna do what I do for free; I’ve done this for free for the past 20 years,” Phillips said.
“Right now there is no funding in the organization and I could not ask anybody to do what I did,” she said.
Before ending its services, AWWIN has a couple of upcoming final events as a farewell to the community.
On Aug. 3, the organization will help provide school supplies for fifth graders in Screven County during the 2020 Open House event.
On Aug. 17, which marks the 20th year of AWWIN becoming incorporated, the organization will give out eight $500 scholarships to high school seniors who have been accepted to college.
It will be part of a celebration marking the nonprofit’s last public event.
“To look at the 20 years that AWWIN has given me, not many people could say that God has used them to serve his people in the manner in which he has allowed me to serve his people, and it is something that I’m going to miss,” Phillips said, noting that she still intends to help those who need it through other organizations.
“As long as God says it’s okay that I lay AWWIN down, that’s what I’m gonna do — lay it down,” she said.