Born to Work with Young People: Sarah Cozad

If anyone could have been said to have been born to work with young people, it’s Sarah Cozad. With a younger brother and younger cousins, “I was always the oldest,” she says of her childhood growing up on a ranch near Linn, Texas, where the nearest neighbors lived two-and-a-half miles away. The younger children, as she remembers, “would turn to me and ask, ‘What are we going to play?’” Starting with those early experiences, Cozad says, “I’ve always related to younger people well.” At the same time, she grew up with a strong Christian faith as one of the givens of family life. Her parents, Jane and John Cozad, attended services every Sunday morning at St. John’s Episcopal Church in McAllen. For Sarah and her brother, Asa, staying home wasn’t an option. During the summer, starting at age 10, Cozad went to Camp Capers, an Episcopal sleep-away camp near Waring, Texas. By the time she was ready for high school — Saint Mary’s Hall — there was no question of skipping church during the school year. “I wanted to keep on growing in my faith,” she says. With other Saint Mary’s Hall students, she sampled some of San Antonio’s Episcopal churches, but the one she attended regularly was St. Thomas, for the contemporary “Keeping It Real” service.

“Growing up, church kept me grounded,” Cozad says. Rather than attending a regional public high school, a long bus ride from their home, the Cozad children both went to boarding school. “Going to church was something we could do as a family when we were all together,” she says, “but it was also something that kept me feeling close to my parents and my brother when we were apart.” She and Asa both became active in Happening, a movement of the Episcopal Church that offers high school students an opportunity to renew their faith. The summer before Cozad entered the University of Texas at Austin also was her last as a camper at Camp Capers. “Some of my friends and I had gone there together for years,” she says. “We made a pact that we would stay together in college.” With fellow campers who also were bound for UT, she made up her mind to continue regular church attendance in Austin. At the university’s Episcopal chapel, she says, “I got hooked — I couldn’t stay away.” The evening service was run by students and featured contemporary music in a “not-so High Church setting,” Sarah says. “Services were not done for us, but by us.”

During her college summers, she was back at Camp Capers, working her way up from counselor to lead counselor and finally to staff director. “It was the same place, but I was seeing it from another side,” she says. “It made me realize how much other people had cared about me when I was a camper, how much responsibility they had taken on. You don’t realize how much you are needed and how important your influence can be until you have someone looking up to you.”
At UT, Cozad was earning a degree in Human Development and Family Science, which she received in 2006. Inspired by her mother, who had been a special education teacher, and her own interests, she says, “I knew I would need to do something where I would be helping other people, and I knew it would be with young people.”
A senior-year internship at the Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth introduced her to a relatively new field. She became a certified child-life specialist after doing rotations through the emergency room, general pediatrics and hematology/oncology, often working with children who were chronically ill or seriously injured. Child-life specialists, she says, “are there for young patients, telling stories, bringing toys and games and preparing them for procedures.”

As she worked toward a master’s degree in child development at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Cozad’s research practicum placement was at the Lena Pope Home in Fort Worth, where she began as an intern and was hired full time as a parent and family educator. Here she worked with young mothers and their family members, both in classroom settings and in follow-up visits to their homes. A major challenge there was to bridge the gulf between her experience and her clients’. “Every once in a while, someone would ask me, ‘Do you have kids?’” she says. “I would tell them, ‘No, I don’t have kids, but I know this (parenting) program, and the research says it works.’ Miraculously, most of them were able to trust me and to understand that I was there to help them.” It was during that time, Cozad says, “that I realized that you can’t help everyone.” In the helping professions, she says, “You can get so wrapped up in judging yourself by your successes. But sometimes, all you can do is hope and pray that you have planted a seed that may change a life for the better, even if you’re not there to see it.” Signs of change, she says, “could be something as small as showing up on time for a class or being there for a home visit.”

During that time, Cozad attended Trinity Episcopal Church on the Texas Christian University campus in Fort Worth, where she was the youngest member — by a couple of decades — of the women’s Bible study group. She was thankful for the group’s support when she learned that her mother had been diagnosed on her 47th birthday with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive, fatal neurodegenerative disease. Jane Cozad, her daughter remembers, had spent her whole life in service. A substitute teacher while her children were in elementary school, she also raised funds for college scholarships for students from the South Texas towns of Linn and San Manuel and served on the board of governors for TMI – The Episcopal School of Texas, where her son had been a student. Her illness was a shock to those who knew her as an energetic member of every community of which she was part; to her daughter, it was a spur to greater faith.

“I don’t blame people who get angry at God,” she says, “but when this happened, I didn’t let it shake my faith. I knew God didn’t do this to her and that we might not understand why it happened, but that He would make everything good again.” As a leader in the faith communities of which she has been a part, she says, “I knew I had to get through this in a way that could be an example to other people. I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘God is good. He has a plan for everyone.’ Then I would try to be open to what was coming next for me.” After her mother’s death last July, Cozad wanted to be closer to her remaining family. Because she had gone to high school in San Antonio, she decided to move back. “Everything I had done before seemed like a stepping stone, leading me to youth ministry,” she says. Of the several youth-minister positions open in the San Antonio area, St. David’s in Terrell Hills appealed to her because it was similar in size and culture to the church in which she had grown up. In her present job, Cozad is not only youth minister but chaplain to St. David’s School, an early-childhood program for children ages 16 months through kindergarten. She enjoys working with young people of all ages but finds the adolescent years a special challenge.

“Teenagers are working out what they want their spiritual lives to be,” she says. “They don’t just believe what their parents tell them to anymore.” Working with this age group also presents a special responsibility. “You have to set boundaries,” she says. “You’re not their parent, and you’re not their friend. They already have those relationships in their lives.” A youth minister, Cozad says, “can have enormous influence on the way (young people) will think about faith for the next stage of their lives.” Parents, she says, “will ask you to change their children. I turn it around and ask them to meet me halfway — just get them here, to church, to Sunday school, to youth group.” Unlike some of the young people she has worked with before, she says, the young church members “aren’t forced to be here. They have free will to decide what to do, but we can help if we can have some time with them.” The kind of work she does, Cozad says, “goes home with you.” Although the young people she works with now are not those traditionally thought of as at-risk, she says, “Their problems are every bit as real.” For every activity she plans with St. David’s youth, she has to have a back-up plan or two. “If you find that something isn’t working, you don’t want to lose them,” she says, “so you have to try something else.”

At this point in her life, Cozad says she is not considering going back to school to study for the priesthood. While many Episcopal priests are former youth ministers, “God hasn’t put that into my head yet,” she says, smiling. “But I’m open to hearing Him speak to me, wherever that takes me.”

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