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Soroptimists honor Anita Spencer

SHERRY MAYS, Sierra Sun

Tragedy can cripple a person’s emotions, rendering them hopeless, helpless and withdrawn. Tragedy can also transform a person into a super hero of sorts, allowing them to share their experience with others to help heal them, their families and ultimately their community.

Transforming tragedy into triumph has been a part of Anita Spencer’s life, and it is the mark she has left on communities from here to the coast that has made her a vital asset to her family, friends and Truckee.

Although Spencer, the 1998 Soroptimist Woman of Distinction, has lived in Truckee for a mere three and one-half years, she is committed to her community, her peers and the people she helps daily as a psychologist. The former Bay rea resident will receive the Soroptimists’ award at a Nov. 4 reception in her honor.

It is a series of life events that brought Spencer to where she is today. A long list of achievements and experiences helped to mold her method of helping others through good and bad times.

At 26, she was deep into parenthood with three sons, and just beginning her undergraduate degree in Sociology. Research that she completed for a thesis became the basis of her first book, “Seasons: A Woman’s Search for Self Through Life’s Stages.”

Without warning, her husband told her he wanted out of their marriage shortly before her graduation, which spurred her on to attend the University of Santa Clara for a master’s degree in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling.

During her counseling internship, Spencer worked as an unpaid intern with the YWCA, and created and directed a program for displaced homemakers.

“This was easy for me,” she said. “I was a displaced homemaker. My life changed the moment my husband asked for a divorce. I knew the courts didn’t support women in divorce, and I knew what they (women) were going through.”

Displaced Homemakers provided women with much needed support to grieve the ending of their marriages and to obtain help in seeking employment after years of taking care of their families.

She then found the time to write her second book, “Mothers are People Too,” which explored the issue of how women could be both mothers and “humans” without compromising either role. She didn’t compromise either of her roles when she entered a doctorate program in clinical psychology.

As part of her doctorate internship, Spencer counseled employees of the police, fire and sheriff’s departments and their families, and conducted critical incident debriefings for the departments when traumatic incidents occurred. Today, Spencer counsels, among others, employees with the Truckee Fire Protection District and Nevada County Sheriff’s Office.

Learning from their experiences, she wrote her third book, “Crises and Growth: Making the Most of Hard Times.”

This book catapulted Spencer into stardom as a disaster management consultant for the media during such incidents as the 1989 San Francisco Earthquake, 1991 Oakland Hills Fire and the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

“During times of crisis, communities come together to help each other,” she said. “It was during the in between times, that I became dismayed by the self-centered mood that was in the city (the Bay Area).”

In her fourth book, “A Crisis of Spirit: Our Desperate Search for Integrity,” Spencer wrote that the materialism of the 1980s left behind a “values vacuum.”

“Deep down inside I had a sense that our country’s focus on the wants and needs of individuals at the expense of the larger community was leading down a path only fools would tread,” she wrote.

Spencer was close to finishing this book when the worst tragedy of her life hit. Her 20-year-old son Scott was brutally beaten to death by a gang on his way home from a Giants baseball game.

In a series of interconnected events, his life was taken. First the tow truck driver who hauled Scott’s disabled car to a closed gas station, next the gang which beat him, then the 9-1-1 operator who trivialized his condition and, finally, the group of people who stood there and watched the beating.

The event, later called the “9-1-1 Murder Trial,” left Spencer “in a pool of deep grief.”

“It seemed as if America had finally crossed the line into complete moral collapse, with no hope of recovering its ethical bearing,” she said.

Although she had changed dramatically as a result of her experience, her commitment to battle ethical and moral anarchy was all the more steadfast and strong. There were many approaches to healing the wounds Scott’s murder left behind.

“Hopefully, (this serves) as an example of how we can use our intelligence and our compassion to overcome life’s harshest challenges.”

In 1995, Spencer decided to start a new chapter in her life by moving to Truckee with husband Lin Crawforth.

What she did after the move and how it has affected Truckee is a lesson in moral integrity.

“I jumped into the community wholeheartedly,” she said. “I thought it was a good way to practice what I preached about ‘grassroots integrity.'”

Spencer first joined the Soroptimists, then followed with the Ladies Guild at the Assumption Catholic Church, Project MANA , and became a boardmember of Truckee Community Christmas.

“There is no reason why anyone should go without in a town the size of Truckee,” she said. “Unlike the city, there is a sense of community here. It’s a small enough community where problems can still be solved with commitment and effort. The social problems aren’t overwhelming.”

She holds fast to the idea that people should take community needs into account before delving into individual needs.

“My favorite saying is, ‘The only true happiness comes from squandering yourself on a purpose,’ which is so true,” she said.

Her next “purpose” is to create a grief center, which will operate in conjunction with the Hospice Program at Tahoe Forest Hospital. The program will offer a support group for patients and families facing life threatening illnesses. Providing low lost counseling for the bereaved and their families, as well as for people with terminal illnesses, will be the focus.

“We need to be continually reminded of the balance between ourselves and the community,” she said. “If one is going to suffer, let it be the individual needs first. The community is truly more important.”

In maintaining her balance in life, Spencer enjoys her two dogs, seven cats and husband Lin. She said she and Lin work to live and not the other way around.

“I love nature,” she said. “I love to watch the seasons change. It reminds me of how life models itself after nature and vice versa. Just like the changing seasons, I know that no matter how bad life gets, it will change just as the seasons do.”

The guidelines used when soliciting nominations for the the Woman of Distinction award were that the woman must be active in her community – as a volunteer, or in the course of her professional work – in at least one of the Soroptimist program areas (economic and social development, education, environment, heath, human rights/status of women, international goodwill and understanding). Additionally, the woman should be recognized by her peers and the people with whom she comes in contact as a woman of exemplary character and integrity, with outstanding ability and demonstrated leadership. She should be an ideal role model for other women.

Kara Moloney, coordinator for the Human Rights/Status of Women for the Truckee-Donner Soroptimist said Spencer is that role model.

“I can’t think of anyone who exemplifies these standards more than Anita Spencer,” she said. “Anita is a model of integrity – she’s written a wonderful and insightful book about the topic. In both her professional volunteer work, Anita has demonstrated her commitment to our community. She’s a great asset and Soroptimist International of Truckee Donner is proud to honor Anita Spencer as our 1998 Woman of Distinction.”

Moloney said the reception is open to the public. It is scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at the Glenshire Clubhouse. Paralympian Candace Cable is the guest speaker, and will be followed by Barbara Robertson, 1997 Woman of Distinction, and Spencer.

For information, call Moloney at 550-9270.

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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