by Liz Daube
Sarah Jones Fowler feels blessed.
During her 27 years as a paralegal and pro bono coordinator for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Fowler has listened to thousands of stories of tragedy and injustice that have made her appreciate everything she has.
“Sometimes I just go here and think, ‘Oh, God – I thought I had a problem,’” said Fowler. “Some of the issues are so overwhelming and so devastating. With intake, you become their social worker, their big brother or sister, their confidante.”
Fowler’s no stranger to tragedy, either; She lost much of her family in a car accident and her sister and brother-in-law in a house fire. But in spite of her own traumas, Fowler said she’s been lucky. Some of the low-income clients who seek legal help from JALA are former high school classmates, Fowler said. Some are ill. Some are homeless. For whatever reasons, their lives have not turned out as planned.
“I hate some of the tragedy and the things they’ve gone through,” said Fowler. “Because they’re poor, they’ve just been walked on.”
The Jacksonville Bar Association recently gave Fowler the 2006 Liberty Bell Award for her work as a non-lawyer in the legal community. Fowler always wanted to become a lawyer, though. Her favorite television shows were “Perry Mason,” “Matlock” and “Law and Order.” But she never earned her law degree, Fowler said, because she married young and had her first child shortly before coming to JALA.
“I probably would’ve fought for the underdog,” said Fowler. “That never panned out ... (but) I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t worthwhile and I didn’t think I was making some kind of difference ... and I’m around a lot of great lawyers, so I’m near what I love.”
She describes herself as a workaholic, clocking about 50 hours a week.
“I like working after hours,” said Fowler. “It’s peaceful and I can concentrate. It’s not because I have to, it’s because that’s just me. I’m like that little bunny rabbit; I’ll just keep going.”
As she nears her retirement (roughly five years away), Fowler said she’s not exactly sure how she’ll slow down. Even when she takes vacations (she has two month-long sabbaticals that she’s been putting off), they’re “working vacations.” She spends a lot of her free time doing home improvement projects and says she feels weird if she’s not busy.
“Even when I’m home, I have a list,” said Fowler. “It’s just that type A personality.”
Fowler has started thinking about life post-retirement, though. She wants to write mystery and nonfiction novels, do more yoga, listen to more music – and research. Fowler said she likes to learn about history. The LaVilla area interests her, and her fiancee has recommended she write a book on the experience of black athletes during the civil rights era.
For those familiar with Fowler’s workaholic tendencies, she’s assured them that she really will retire at some point. “I don’t want them to find me slumped over this desk,” she said.
Looking back on her career, Fowler said she can’t imagine working with a for-profit group; her work with JALA has meant so much to so many people.
“I’m not so money-driven. I’m more result-oriented,” said Fowler. “If I call and tell them (clients) that they have an attorney, that stops their headache. That stops their waiting. That stops their sleepless nights. Money doesn’t always buy happiness.”