For those around her, Corinne Gerwe, Ph.D., appears as an unassuming, humble retiree with the patience of a saint as she wrangles youth theater participants ranging from elementary to high school age. For Corinne, however, working with the youth is simply a joy she said has helped put her in a happy place in life.
A retired therapist, clinical associate professor, researcher and lecturer in the field of neuropsychology, Corinne dreamed as a child of working in the arts. Her future seemed almost destined, however, due to her upbringing in a close-knit Irish-Catholic family that dealt with a father wounded in World War II and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. Those influences led her down a professional path far outside the artistic realm of which she yearned to be involved.
“As a child, my dream was to be in the arts. I wanted to write. But, my dream was interrupted by my father. Instead of my dream, I entered a field addressing very serious chronic issues,” she said.
While her career was fulfilling and it even brought her international notoriety, Corinne said her volunteer work has brought her the most satisfaction.
DEVELOPING A CAREER
Born in Cincinnati, Corinne lived with her family on a farm in rural Ohio from age 7 to 11 before the family moved back to the city. From the time she was 17, she said, she worked almost all the time putting herself through school.
“I was working in hospitals when I was very young. I was seeing addiction problems and at home seeing my father’s struggle,” she recalled.
From those beginnings, her career seemed a natural progression. She studied biological psychology at the University of Cincinnati, earned a Master’s Degree at Clemson University, was awarded a full Doctoral Fellowship from the Union Institute and University in Ohio and did her post-doctoral work at the Mountain Neurological Center and Harvard Division on Addictions. She is a licensed clinical addiction specialist and Fellow of the National Peace Foundation.
Her work focused on studying how extraordinary childhood experiences can impact patterns of human behavior, even changing the course of a person’s life as it did hers. She spent about 25 years in treating patients in the field of substance abuse treatment and mental health with hospital, prison and military based systems.
While there was no time to be artistic due to a busy work schedule, Corinne did use her desire to write, developing and publishing “The Orchestration of Joy and Suffering: Understanding Chronic Addiction” in 2001. She created a treatment methodology, the Gerwe Orchestration Method (G-OM), hailed as a pioneering work in the effort to understand violence and addictive behavior.
Her work garnered her international recognition. Just as her book was to be published, her husband David was killed in a tragic accident by a drunk driver on a rural highway near their home in Western North Carolina. The couple had moved to the historic mountain town of Saluda in 1991 for David’s job with the Eckerd Wilderness Foundation where he set up programs to address boys facing problems that could lead to delinquency.
They had moved into and renovated an old church on a hill overlooking the town. David’s death was devastating but her work allowed her to get through it. She was written up in scientific journals, and her work brought an offer from the National Peace Foundation in Washington, D.C. Corinne was asked to set up clinics in 20 cities in the Urals of northern Russia. Over the next 10 years she traveled there 14 times spending three weeks at a time setting up clinics to address the AIDS epidemic in crucial military regions caused by an influx of heroin from Afghanistan. During that time, she also accepted a professorship at Clemson and traveled back and forth.
“I was grieving so terribly, I thought at least I can be useful because I felt my life had ended,” she said of David’s death. “I had amazing experiences but was always happy to come back home.”
In 2012, it was time for Corinne to help her ailing mother and retire. Her retirement allowed her time to write and delve into the creative realm. Since then she has written and had published three fictional mysteries and one non-fiction novel, but is better known today as an author, playwright and youth theater director—artistic titles she could only dream of as a child.
LIVING HER DREAM
Living in a small town provided ample opportunities for philanthropy. Corinne had already been volunteering at the Thrifty Barn, a fundraising aspect of the local senior center. Once she stopped working, she was able to give more of her time and even established a book room where locals can browse through hundreds of well-organized books and even sit awhile and read.
She also joined forces with a group of local citizens determined to save an historic train depot and turn it into a museum. Saluda was known as home to the Saluda Grade—the steepest, mainline, standard gauge railroad in the nation—and the citizens wanted to ensure its history was preserved.
“I always thought Saluda had such a unique history and no place for people to go to see it,” she said.
The little depot had been purchased and moved from its original location and was turned into retail space. When it went up for sale again, Corinne’s volunteerism shot into action. The group developed a nonprofit organization and board of directors and bought the building. The owner at that time believed in their cause and helped make the purchase feasible, she said.
“The interior had not been hurt and is one of the only depots that I know of that still has its original interior,” she said. “People thought it was impossible for our group to do it, but we knew there was this great group of people who wanted to know about the trains.”
Once purchased and starting with an empty shell, the Saluda Historic Depot and Museum began to develop with help from a local train club and a member who built a scale model of the historic mountain track with model trains. The newly developed board of directors learned quickly just how many people were interested in the history of the trains and support and visitors began to pour in.
“I am really proud of that achievement, of being part of that group,” Corinne said. She has remained on the board of directors and as part of her work there, her next step was to suggest a theater group be started.
“I wanted to do that for the children here because I could see children like me who didn’t have enough opportunities. Saluda is a little too small to do things the bigger towns can do,” she said.
Because most of the parents work, she could see only a select number of area children had the ability to participate in nearby theaters.
“When I started volunteering, I was drawn to the children,” Corinne said. She decided it was not fair for only a handful of children to be able to participate in the arts.
“I knew I had the credentials and the background to work with people and apply that to children. I just didn’t realize I would end up with so many,” she said, adding there are now 18 in the group with more waiting to join. “And, it has turned out to be such a joy.”
While Corinne’s original idea to start an acting troupe may have seemed distant from the functions of a train depot nonprofit, the board was amazed to see 40 people (15 of which were children) respond to an announcement posted seeking interest.
“I was shocked. I wanted to go talk to the kids as soon as I saw them. I just knew this is what I wanted to do. I suggested we meet once a month and the kids said once a week and they are still there. In my mind, this is the best thing I have ever done. It’s like everything I ever did my whole life led to this. This is delightful to me,” she said.
That was two years ago. Since then Corinne has written two plays for the children’s group they named YAK (Young Acting Krew) to perform with some assistance from the adult theater group, which was also successfully formed. The first performance based on an original play written and directed by Corinne depicting the history of the Saluda Grade and development of the railroad, drew around 300 people who filled the only building large enough in town to hold the play. A second play she has written is an adaptation of “A Christmas Story” to be performed during the holidays.
Because there is no playhouse and the only place in the area that can accommodate a play is expensive to rent, the children’s plays are for one night only. In response to the need, a benefactor has stepped forward—again thanks to Corinne’s hard work and dedication—to donate a small, former community center that is currently under renovation. With grants sought out by Corinne and local fundraisers held by the children and local businesses, the playhouse may be ready for use in the near future.
“Because I worked with Hilda Pace at the Thrifty Barn and she heard me talking about the kids, she became my first patron and donated use of the building. She knows me and she knows it is going to happen. I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t have people around me volunteering to help,” she said. “We are all given gifts. I do believe that, and I think we are meant to use them. I feel I am using the gift I was given to make a difference in children’s lives and in my town. I get more out of it than anyone. I am a happy person and I never thought I would be happy again after I lost my husband.”
Corinne said when people give of themselves, it helps others. “It fills you back up again,” she said, adding retirees should move past who they were in their professional lives to see how they can live a rewarding life every day.