When Wendy Sager died unexpectedly in December of 2018, she was mourned by Ron, her husband of 40 years, and the family she created out of her 23-year career at the Milwaukee County Department of Aging.
That family included not just staff and co-workers but also people she helped and their families.
“She would get letters from clients and clients’ families thanking her for information, for her involvement, for saving them,” said Ron Sager, who, in the months after Wendy’s death, agonized over ways to memorialize her.
A single sentence in a February Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story provided him with the answer. The article described a new partnership between two local schools, Milwaukee Area Technical College and Alverno College. The initiative would allow graduates of MATC’s Human Services associate degree program to transfer to Alverno and earn their bachelor’s degree in four years.
“Studies project there will be more of a need for social workers helping the aging population and people seeking treatment for mental illness,” it read.
Ron Sager’s next steps were clear.
“I needed to start a fund in Wendy’s name,” he said, “provided that (student recipients) committed one semester or some time to working with the senior population, and that it would be non-denominational and not economically focused on one area. I wanted whoever got scholarships to experience what Wendy did.”
What Wendy did, according to her husband, was to make people of all ages and backgrounds feel safe and comfortable, effectively provided them with resources to make their lives better. That included friends, people she encountered in the course of working as a professional, and professionals who turned to her for help.
“Whoever Wendy met, she developed a sisterhood with,” Sager said. “Wendy respected people, she liked that they were honest and open. Their exteriors didn’t matter.”
He contacted Crystal Aschenbrenner, chair of the Social Work Department at Alverno College. She referred him to the school’s development office. His donation of $100,000, administered through the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, will fund the annual scholarship. The GMF will let Alverno Colleege know on a yearly basis how much is available; Alverno College will determine how to allocate the funding. (Note to readers: Scholarship funds may also be set up through the Jewish Community Foundation of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.)
A first award of $4,000 will be given this year, according to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. Recipients will be junior or senior social work majors from Milwaukee, with preference given to those who intend to work in outreach programs focused on the elderly or other at-risk populations in the Milwaukee area.
Amy Christen, Alverno’s Financial Aid director, said there will be no formal application process. Rather, the financial aid office will identify students with a need and make a determination to award the scholarship to who best fits the criteria.
Aschenbrenner said the school and especially her department is grateful to Sager, and of the intention behind the scholarship.
“What a way to honor her memory while positively impacting the future of social workers, the social work profession and the Milwaukee area.”
Aschenbrenner said she hadn’t spoken with Sager since their initial conversation. Now that the scholarship is a reality and a recipient is in the process of being chosen, she is working on plans to more directly express her and her department’s appreciation.
“I’m extremely respectful of him,” she said, “and I want to make sure he knows that this is impacting social work – today with the individual students, and with the impact that they’re going to make for the rest of their careers. They’re not going to forget this type of generosity.”