Sandy Gilbert has experienced more than her share of sorrows. And through it all, the popular South Whidbey teacher remains optimistic, helpful and giving for the sake of her family and community.
Ann Chambers is just one of many who are thankful they ran into Gilbert and, as a result, saw a positive change in their lives.
“I was definitely a rescue, the day Sandy Gilbert came into my life 12 years ago with her optimistic outlook,” said Chambers, a school volunteer.
“I had barely survived a surgery that had gone south, and from that I lost my career job, then my house. Worst of all during that same time I lost my dog and horse. Feeling sorry for myself was a daily occurrence. That attitude gets real boring after a while. Finally I gathered the courage to volunteer at Langley Middle School, that’s when I met Sandy Gilbert, the most positive teacher.
“My thought at first was to volunteer a couple of hours a day one day a week. But after being in Sandy Gilbert’s class and witnessing the enthusiasm of her students, within one week I became a full-time volunteer five days a week, seven hours a day.
“Sandy has been the inspiration and the backbone of anything I may have accomplished and continue to do. I can’t begin to tell you the ‘job’ satisfaction I have, all made possible with Sandy’s positive outlook.”
Gilbert’s positive outlook helps in practical ways and inspires countless students and adults, said fellow teacher, Pat Nostrand.
“Sandy is one of the most optimistic people I know. Whether the loss of a family member or extreme damage to her home, she maintains a smile and has something hopeful to say. We can all benefit from that attitude. What a great way to live.”
Talking with Gilbert is as easy as breathing; any question posed to her is met with a sincere desire to comment honestly and thoughtfully, with laughter inserted. She serves a spread of homemade rich desserts and cut fruit. While she pours coffee, she reflects on the question of loss.
“I’ve lived in a dark hole before, there’s nothing worse.” She begins to cry. “For instance when my younger sister died in the Alaska Airlines 2000 plane crash and then shortly after my brother passed away that was one of those times. I remember crying all the way to work, then stopping and becoming a teacher, then crying all the way home, then stopping to become a wife and mother. When we are battered with grief, guilt, worry or whatever has us, it’s horrible, beyond all reason. Some of life’s loss and pains are ones we cannot get over but we can work with it.
“When my eldest sister lost her daughter under very difficult circumstances, I held her and we cried together, we have to grieve, we have to cry, and we have to decide to go on with life.
“We can stay in our hole of despair and finish our days in the dark, or we can crawl out and make something of ourselves.”
Gilbert became involved with Ryan’s House for Youth, a group working to open a homeless youth shelter on Whidbey, named after a young man who also died in the Alaska plane crash. Gilbert has put her efforts into memorials for grieving families and friends of those 88 killed in the crash.
“I wanted to keep my sister’s memory alive and help others do the same for their family and friends.
“This is such a diverse world with many views. Some of the family members felt their loved ones became dolphins once they hit the water. This is their way of handling their grief. It’s not mine, but it’s so important not to judge people for their faith or ideas. I remember one Halloween I took our 6-year-old daughter Karla to join a community party. The lady stopped us at the entrance and said in a disapproving tone that we weren’t allowed in, because Karla was dressed as a ghost. I tried to talk to her but the lady wouldn’t listen, so we removed her hat and went in only to see pirates were allowed in.
“I thought as a Christian I would remember how this felt so I wouldn’t treat anyone like this. So when other Alaska flight family members felt their loved ones had been reincarnated, even though this isn’t what I believe, I honor their beliefs. One dear lady lost both of her children in that crash, sadly she has never been able to crawl out of her hole of sadness. I do pray for her. I don’t know why tragedies happen in this world, perhaps so we will all keep praying.”
When Gilbert was 4, her parents divorced due to alcohol problems and stress. Next, her 8-year-old sister drowned. Her mother was devastated, but she had faith and shared that with her children. Her mother also kept busy with three jobs to support the family and this helped her grief, Gilbert remembers.
“My mom’s answer for everything was, ‘pray first and then solve problems with actions.’ We couldn’t afford a home, so my mom became a realtor/broker. We couldn’t afford new clothes so she opened a clothing store. For affordable family vacations, my mom became a travel agent. I always knew who I was from my mom’s love and faith.
“I knew I was a child of God. And even though we rarely saw our father, his extended family (members) were supportive Christians that helped to fill the gap, even to this day.”
When Gilbert was 18, her father suddenly died from illness related to drinking.
At the age of 31 at Christmastime, her mom died from a stroke. “I started down that path of despair, sobbing daily — until I realized I could keep her memory alive, for example my mom was a singer, so I gave my children singing lessons. My mom was Norwegian so I joined the Daughters of Norway.
“When I find I am feeling sad and down, I pray, and listen to music to help change my mood. I try to see the glass half full, or see the movie screen full, I don’t see the black on the bottom and top, I see the full movie screen in the middle. I desperately want to see the best parts in life, and help others see the good too.”
Once, she took a class on stress. The teacher asked them to write down everything on earth that they worry about and put the list of worries in a drawer.
“Every day I pulled out that list for five minutes and worried like hell and then put it away until the next day,” Gilbert said.
Now she focuses on the positive, and puts her thoughts there. “This is an incredible community of people we live in, I am thankful to be a part of it, I’m thankful for my faith, family and job.
“I know a lot of people have a difficult life, try to look at the mountains, water, trees and animals. Find a volunteer group that might meet your needs. Do everything you can to not allow your mind to take you to that dark hole. Think about what legacy, story, you want to leave behind about your life. For me, I don’t want people to think of my worries and sorrows. I want my story to be about how I helped people.”
Lynne Malecki, a retired Langley Middle School teacher, said Gilbert is all about helping others.
“I have known Sandy for over 25 years. She has always placed herself in the middle of some major undertaking that benefits those around her and advances a special cause,” Malecki said. “She helped to raise funds for a young boy in the intermediate school diagnosed with leukemia and needing a bone marrow transplant. She taught everyone about bone marrow donors and put her efforts into recruiting new donors. She’s championed St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital at the middle school by holding a math-a-thon to raise money for children needing medical help each year.
“Sandy has always had causes,” Malecki said. “And she is very persuasive at engaging volunteers, encouraging creative ideas for fundraising, and not taking any glory for herself. While many of us feel helpless in such situations, she is always able to muster forces and organize everyone to do something helpful. This gives herself and others a hopeful outlook and a new perspective to move forward.”