Sarah Peisch: the ‘Gringa’ everyone fell in love with

Among those of us that are in the quest for our purpose in life making a significant contribution to this world is a priority.

I am fortunate to have called a friend a woman who made a priceless contribution to my beautiful homeland of Puerto Rico.

Sarah Peisch was born in Vermont. She came to Puerto Rico in the early 1990’s to teach English. Like most people that come to the island for what they think will be a temporary gig, she fell in love with it. She never went back to the mainland.

Aside from teaching English as a second language at a university, Sarah became an environmental warrior. She founded the “Centro de Acción Ambiental”, a nonprofit organization whose purpose was that of fighting environmental justice battles on behalf of disenfranchised communities.

It was in the context of her environmental activism that I met Sarah. Like her, I had just arrived fresh from Vermont after a year-long specialization in Environmental Law. Armed with knowledge and passion, I found in Sarah a brilliantly determined partner committed to protect the environment in Puerto Rico for everyone alike.

When she was not teaching English, Sarah was organizing communities in the fight for environmental justice. Communities that had become used to living exposed to toxins in their surrounding air, land or water. She would educate them on their rights, on what was wrong and unacceptable. On how to get the authorities to listen to them.

Sarah was funny, sweet, genuine and a phenomenal, fearless adversary in the fight for what she deemed was right. I was in awe of her intelligence.

Even when I disagreed with her rather extreme views, I always respected her integrity and courage when defending a cause.

“When you are right, you have nothing to fear” she would say.

Sarah advocated for the use of ‘tables’ as the best way to win any argument. Trained as a teacher, she was clear that the visual portrayal of any argument was easy to understand and difficult to contradict.

Most of the crucial environmental victories she won relied on her use of tables. Depicting the defective modeling, projections, statistics or faulty criteria used to establish the viability of a project, she was able to garner significant environmental triumphs.

“Numbers don’t lie” was her mantra.

I admired Sarah’s integrity. Unlike other environmental activists who out of sheer exhaustion sell out, Sarah never gave up. Many developers tried to buy her conscience to no avail. Not one succeeded.

In the early 2000’s, Sarah developed ovarian cancer. Being a remarkable warrior, she fought against it tooth and nail.

She still had many battles to fight. She continued to work and did not make a fuss about her condition. Very few people knew about it.

Her companion of many years, Andy, showed up one day to my office to bring her an envelope. When I saw her jump with joy as Andy explained to me that the test results confirmed that the results confirmed that her cancer had gone into remission.

Sarah had one big environmental battle left.

A great threat loomed over the protected natural reserve area known as Piñones.

A developer wanted to build a touristic/mixed use development that would do away with dunes, protected species and public coastline.

The developer had all the financial resources to circumvent the environmental hurdles the development presented. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring the “right” experts that would guarantee that the government would approve his project.

On behalf of the impoverished community of Piñones, Sarah took on experts on all the fields: traffic, economy, environment, tourism and housing. Her challenge seemed unsurmountable.

Yet she won. The government had no choice but to deny the permits.

With her tables, Sarah was able to pierce holes into the volumes of studies and well-paid ‘experts’ opinions submitted in support of the project.

When the government announced it would buy the land from the developer and dedicate it to a permanent part of the natural reserve, her battle was over.

It was then, at age 50, that her cancer came back. This time, however, her adversary won her last battle.

It was as if the disease had given her the opportunity to finish her last environmental mission at Piñones. One that no one but her had the capacity, grit and passion to undertake and prevail.

When Sarah passed, she had three farewell ceremonies at communities where she left part of her legacy.

In Piñones, fishermen made a procession at sea where part of her ashes were spread.

A mural commemorated her accomplishment on behalf of the community.

In John Green’s The Fault with Our Stars, Hazel reproached Augustus’ for believing that “… the only way to lead a meaningful life is for everyone to remember you.”

Augustus’ concern however, went beyond the seemingly self-centered concern of dying without having anyone remember him. Instead, he believed that [“i]f you don’t live a life in service of a greater good, you’ve gotta at least die a death in service of a greater good…”

He feared that he would not get either a life or a death that meant anything to anyone.

I believe both characters’ outlooks were misguided.

The selfish need to be remembered or honored posthumously cannot be the force behind our effort to contribute to the greater good. Rather, living a life of purpose (while accomplishing professional ambitions) provides the ultimate satisfaction and unequivocal proof of self-realization.

This goal does not necessarily entail lofty accomplishments like Sara’s.

Being mindful of our words, smiling at others, being patient or carrying out random acts of kindness serve the purpose of making this world a better one, one person at a time.

For today, I pray that I can go to sleep knowing I contributed to make this world a better one.