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Friday, March 21, 2008

She will never run out of hugs

Colleagues bid tearful goodbye to caseworker

By Maria Garriga
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— When Sofie Nell Turner, 77, finally decided to retire from her job as a case manager at Christian Community Action, her co-workers cried.
They held a retirement party for her Thursday at Centro Community Center on Sylvan Street.
Once a victim of domestic violence herself, Turner helped found the city’s first agency to help domestic violence victims, raised six children of her own and 12 foster children, and for the past 20 years has worked as a case worker for homeless people at CCA’s office on Sylvan Street.
Turner cut a sleek figure in a stylish black pantsuit, ivory silk shirt, a scarlet and gold scarf and hoop earrings.
“It’s been a pleasure. I love you all. My final words: I am blessed,” she said.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell sent congratulations and the Board of Aldermen issued a citation read by Alderwoman Andrea Jackson-Brooks, D-4.
The Rev. Bonita Grubbs, CCA executive director, mournfully noted, “I knew this day would come, she would hang up her caseworker shoes.”
As much as her clients depended on her, her coworkers depended on her even more.
They call her “Ms. Sofie,” but also referred to her as a legend, mother, big sister, mentor.
“She is the finest woman I have ever known,” said John Revina, who has volunteered at the agency for 20 years.
Turner served on boards, tutored children, worked in community service, pulled votes and rang doorbells for the Democrats, and spent countless hours as a volunteer at Immanuel Baptist Church.
“One of the most important parts of being a woman, and being a strong black woman, is going to church. It keeps you grounded,” she said.
Though retired, she plans to stay active in the church, community service and on the board of Home Inc., an agency that promotes affordable housing.
Turner grew up in Greenville, S.C., where she worked in cotton fields and drove the family tractor when her father fell ill. She moved to New Haven in her mid-20s to live with a sister and to leave a bad marriage behind.
The move shaped the course of her life. In New Haven, she worked factory jobs, reared children and joined the fight against domestic violence.
“Domestic violence was my passion. Nine times out of 10, if a woman is homeless, she’s also a battered woman. She doesn’t correlate the two. She just says, ‘He slaps me around sometimes,’ or ‘He just locks me out of the house sometimes.’”
Amy Eppler-Epstein, an attorney with New Haven Legal Services, recalls meeting Turner 25 years ago as a student at Yale Law School. Eppler-Epstein volunteered in a project in which law students helped battered women get restraining orders. Turner helped train students.
“She gave them a view of reality and talked about the importance of supporting a woman no matter how many times it took her to leave the man. She talked about the reality of how hard it is to leave.”After 10 years, Turner left the domestic violence agency she helped start 30 years ago because “it was time to leave.”
But she couldn’t leave her needy clientele behind. In short order, she joined CCA as a case worker helping homeless families. Most people find such work emotionally draining; Turner was no exception.
“I don’t think I could have done it so long if I wasn’t grounded in my faith,” she said. “It takes too much out of you dealing with people who believe in nothing and no one. When you see a needy person, they need support, not rescuing.”
Now Turner said the time has come to leave again. She wants to visit family in South Carolina and take a cruise to Alaska.
“We can still go to the casino,” hollered her friend, Doris Little, 73, who works as a program adviser for the University of Connecticut.
Co-workers said they will miss Turner’s blend of wisdom, compassion and tough love. But mostly, they said, they will miss her hugs. “I want a hug before you run out,” Revina told her as he stood in a line that formed of people waiting for her hugs.
Turned laughed. “I never run out,” she said.

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