By Laura Frater
Carrboro Commons Volunteer Writer
As an Indian Summer descended on the historic St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Carrboro, Paula Harrington had no idea she was about to receive the Sarah Allen Award for her community and church service at St. Paul AME. But the folks at the church, where she has been a member for over a decade, made sure it was a special affair.
Speaking after the service, the final Sunday of Women’s Ministry Month, Paula explained that she “hadn’t expected the award at all…I was very surprised!” she said, laughing. “But I’m very grateful that my work in the church and community is being validated. I am absolutely positive that I have found God’s purpose for me in my life.”
The Sarah Allen Award is given to an individual who has displayed outstanding acts of community and church service at St. Paul.
The Rev. Thomas O. Nixon, who has been St. Paul’s pastor since 2004, said that Harrington seemed like an obvious choice when he decided on this year’s recipient.
“I looked at what Paula is involved in,” Nixon explained after the service. “She’s involved in shelter work once a month with the Women’s Ministry … She works with Oxford House (a self-run housing program for individuals recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction) … She sings in the choir. She’s a community go-getter.”
Harrington, who currently works as a special projects outreach worker with Oxford House Inc., graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. For 30 years she suffered from drug and alcohol addiction before moving to the first women’s Oxford House in Chapel Hill on June 1, 1998. Her permanent recovery began soon thereafter.
“I am a woman in long-term recovery who has not had a drink or drug since April 26, 1998, after 30 years of addiction,” Paula told the congregation. “My faith saved me from a life of drugs and alcohol.”
Sharon Davis, a church member who spoke about Harrington before presenting her with her award, described her as a “tireless steward” in the community.
Along with her work in Oxford House, Harrington serves on several drug recovery-related boards including the board of the Freedom House Recovery Center, the leadership team at the Sunrise Recovery Resource Center, and she is a certified navigator for the Affordable Care Act. Harrington said, “The most rewarding part of my job is helping others embrace their problems.”
Two years after Harrington moved into Oxford House, she began work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she worked in positions ranging from accounting technician and grants administrator, to a human resources facilitator. She left UNC in 2012, but not before she joined Oxford House as an outreach worker in 2000.
Harrington, who works in Orange and Durham Counties, explained, “I found my path in Oxford House as I embraced my own recovery from alcohol and drug abuse.”
During the award ceremony, church member Sharon Davis also spoke about Harrington’s three children, calling her “the proud mother of a son and two daughters.”
“I just got back last week — I was visiting my daughter.” Harrington said, smiling, as she revealed her intricately engraved award up close. “She recently passed the bar exam. She got sworn in this year and she works in Governor Cuomo’s office. My other daughter, Chandra, was a Chancellor Scholar at N.C. State University. My son, Charles, is currently pursuing his MBA in executive management. He is the senior pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia … I’ve been very blessed. It’s all thanks to Jesus.”
After Sunday’s ceremony, the Rev. Nixon praised Harrington for her inspiring presence at St. Paul.
“What people admire about her is that she’s more expressive,” he said. “She’s always the same. You see her up there with the choir and she’s really connecting with God. She’s lively, spiritual, emotional. You’ll get some response from her.”
Harrington’s colleagues at Oxford House praised her for her community service work. Her co-worker and fellow outreach worker, Tony Sowards, commended Harrington’s work ethic.
“Paula is very giving, very compassionate,” he said, “she lives the model [of Oxford House], she’s the epitome of the model. She lived it and continues to live it with residents. She certainly gives men and women a tremendous amount of encouragement not to drink or do drugs. We’ve worked together for two years. We’ve disagreed, but we’ve never had an argument,” he said, before pausing for a moment. “She is the closest thing to a sister.”
After the church service, Harrington thanked congregation members for their congratulatory wishes but not before advocating for Oxford House residents.
“Most residents have been incarcerated or as a result of their addiction have not worked in a while,” she said. “The community can help by offering job assistance, furniture for new houses being opened, toiletries and other personal items for the residents … a little initial help makes all the difference,” she said. “My wish is to continue to help others find comfortable sobriety.”