From cheerleader for an NBA team ( Detroit Pistons') and 1981 Super Bowl Grand Marshall with NFL Jim Brown to a model, to a hairdresser, to a mom, to a minister and finally to a founder of transitional homes for women and men in recovery. Dr. Sarita Graham’s journey has been a long one filled with joy, sadness and some enormous mountains to climb.
But now she is realizing her dream of The Princess-Phyllis Wheatley House for Women at 2214 Benton Blvd, Isaiah's Place for Men at 3344 S. Benton Blvd and Joshua's Safe Haven for Men at 622 Benton Blvd in Kansas City, Missouri. Sarita is open and honest about how hard the journey’s been. The scar that runs deepest is the death of her grown daughter, whose life ended just a couple of months short of seeing her and her mother’s dream come true of creating a spiritual safe haven for women who had no place else to go in Kansas City.
A beautiful African American woman with striking gray/green eyes, Sarita doesn’t sugar-coat anything, which is just one reason why her residents in the transitional houses respect and love her so much!
“There have been days when every road block that could be put in our way was in front of us like a brick wall. All I can do on days like that is to go to God and say, “O.K., God, what do you want me to do about this?” Sarita says. “Sometimes the answer comes slowly and we just have to walk in faith and believe that it’s coming. But sometimes a phone call would come in immediately after prayer with a solution in the form of a person who knew somebody who knew somebody and, eventually, the problem would be resolved.”
But expecting life to be a piece of cake has never been Sarita’s way of thinking. Service to others and a strong sense of going after her dreams were ingrained in her at an early age.
Growing up in the small town of Danville, Illinois, Sarita Lynn Givens was born the 5th of January. Sarita’s father worked for the General Motors plant and her mother ran a transitional home for juveniles. Her father would help poor blacks from the South relocate to Danville, teaching them to read and helping them to find jobs during the turbulent civil rights movement. Sarita’s maternal grandfather was musician Lonnie Chapman, who played with the early Fairfield Four band, one of the first black gospel bands to have its music played on the radio and to become nationally-recognized.
An outgoing and talented youngster, Sarita’s whole life as a child and young teenager involved church and cheerleading. When her father died from stomach cancer when she was 12, Sarita’s new father figure became her pastor and her great uncle and the church became her solace. Sarita and her sister, Brenda, grew up in a strict home. “Our mother kept us in a box,” Sarita recalled. When she graduated early at 17, she decided to go to Danville Junior College for a nursing degree, but there was a restlessness in her.
A New Life and A Fateful Decision
At 18, she moved to Pontiac, Michigan, near Detroit, to live with an aunt and to go to cosmetology school. Called “Tweet” for her diminutive birdlike figure and her long, slim legs, Sarita stumbled upon a great opportunity.“My uncle told me that the Detroit Pistons were holding try-outs for cheerleader,” she says. “And, I made it!”
While still going to cosmetology school, Sarita imparted on a glamorous career for a young woman her age and began making more money than she dreamed she could with personal appearances and modeling gigs.Still a faithful church-goer and assistant director of her church choir, Sarita was the object of talk amongst the members of her church; some of whom disapproved of what Sarita was doing.
There came a day when her church family gave her an ultimatum—quit the team or quit the church. Her heart was heavy, but she did end up giving the cheerleading and personal appearances up for her church. That decision, today, still haunts her and reshaped her opinion of religion and its doctrines.While Sarita never left her church, she became embittered about her forced decision to leave cheerleading.
In 1981, at age 23, the young woman became involved in a verbally abusive relationship. The blessing which came from that relationship was a beautiful baby daughter who Sarita named Sarita Laurece Givens. But she would be known to all who loved her as “Princess,” because of her love of dressing up and gentle spirit.
Princess was a child who excelled in school and sports and church. She loved to write poetry, dance and sing and adored her younger brother and sister when they were born into the family later. At birth, an examination showed a serious heart defect. At age 10, she survived a quadruple heart bypass and was back to her old, active self within a year.
Sarita worked and made a good living as a cosmologist living in Pontiac, Mi ., and also as an administrative assistant at a large and prestigious law firm near Detroit. She was a wedding planner and clothes designer, too. In 1984, she met her present husband, Gregory Graham and married him in 1985. “Princess” was about four years old. The years passed and Sarita had another daughter and a son with Graham. A third baby did not live to term.
By this time, Sarita was living in Clarkston, Mi., and was a stay-at-home mom.Even with Princess’ health problems, Sarita was never sidetracked from doing what she always knew she would do—become a minister and serve people in some manner just like her mother and father did. While working and raising her family, Sarita eventually received a masters in theology and a PhD in Divinity from The Full Gospel Christian Church Bible College in Flint, Michigan. She became aLicensed Professional Christian Therapist Diplomat through the American Association of Christian Therapists of Dallas and received her Committed Caring Faith Community from the Advanced Addiction Academy of Kansas City, Mo.
In 2003, Sarita received an exclusive scholarship and invitation to attend the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative. The DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative is an intense 15-month tuition-sponsored leadership development program for urban youth workers. A person of influence in their local community nominates youth leaders to apply for this program.
With her certification and years of experience as an abstinence educator, once Sarita and her family moved to Kansas City in 1997, she began working in middle schools, conducting workshops, training and speaking to churches and community organizations the importance of healthy living. focusing on teenage pregnancy, prevention of STD's, HIV/AIDS and substance abuse. She served as the facilitator for the “You Are Special” at the City Union Mission. The curriculum teaches women that second chances are possible.
In 1999, “Princess,” at age 18, decided to leave her Kansas City home and spread her wings. Moving to Langston, Oklahoma she enrolled in Langston University, the well-known black college, studying economics and organizational management. She would then move to Tulsa for an internship in 2004.
But Princess became depressed and confided to her mother that she was not happy and wanted to change her major to nursing. Mother and daughter would share the same dream of establishing a house for women in recovery. Knowing that the women would likely come to them from the streets with health problems, young Sarita was planning to become a nurse anesthetist and to work side by side with her mother. She would give them physical comfort while her mother would give them spiritual comfort.
Then, life took a terrible turn for the young woman. Depressed about a lack of money to finance her career in nursing, Princess started working as a clerk at a gas station. She became involved with a man who introduced her to drugs—an ironic and sad twist for a young woman who wanted to help others get off drugs. There was a miscarriage. But there was always mom. Always there. Always supportive. Always praying.
Things appeared to be looking up in 2005. Princess was still living in Tulsa, but she was off drugs and talking almost daily to her mother. Not only were they excited about the progress being made on securing the house for women, but mother and daughter had teamed up to make and market an old family’s recipe for a pork rub.
But on Sept. 23, 2005, Sarita’s biggest mountain to climb would loom in front of her. “I got the phone call at 10 a.m. that my daughter’s body had been found in her apartment,” Sarita said. An autopsy revealed no traces of drugs or alcohol. Circumstances surrounding Princess’ death continues to be a mystery. “I have no peace about how she died and I have more questions than the authorities could ever give me answers,” Sarita says. There’s always a haunting and inability to get closure on a loved one’s sudden death—the professional therapist in Sarita knows that. But the mother in her can’t accept it. She dreams sometimes about having enough money to hire a private team of investigators to open the case again.
The last conversation Sarita had with her daughter pushed her to move forward with her plans for the Princess House. “A week before she died, she said, ‘mom, I know you’ve been praying for us to be altogether as a family again. This is your time to be happy.”
Life and Love Go On
The first Princess House open on in 2005, just two and a half months after Sarita Laurece Givens, age 24, was laid to rest in a Kansas City cemetery. “Princess” is on her grave marker along with the banner of her beloved sorority, Zeta Phi Beta surrounding it. Housed in a rented home on Olive Street, the first Princess House accommodated 12 women. The new Princess-Phyllis Wheatley House at 2214 South Benton Blvd. in Kansas City, Mo., owned by Sarita Lynne Ministries, opened Feb. 28, 2010 and can house up to 21 women. The Ministries also operates a house for men, the Isaiah’s House, at 3344 South Benton Blvd.
The Princess-Phillis Wheatley House is a faith-based, family focused transitional living environment. It believes in an unbeatable concept, a combination of faith in God, supportive family, compassionate good in-patient/out-patient/after-care treatment, and complete recovery support with the assistance of diligent community-based resources. The women, young and middle age, come from all walks of life. Some of them have generational addiction issues and some are ex-offenders and even veterans of war returning with emotional and substance abuse problems.
“My daughter and I shared this dream—of creating a safe place where these women could learn to see their full potential and another side of life. Every time I see a woman here make a breakthrough and begin to love herself and do the hard work it takes to change, I can feel the presence of my daughter. When I give the women here a hug and a smile, my Princess is hugging them and smiling too.”