Living With Gratitude

Parkdale entrepreneur brings community together in giving thanks

By Drew Myron

Sara Rose Donahue takes a moment to write in her gratitude journal. Born and raised in Parkdale, Sara Rose created Gratitude University as a way to share the power of thankfulness. Photo by Drew Myron

In a year marked with death, illness, and isolation, Sara Rose Donahue is determined to find the bright side.

“It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude,” she says. “It’s gratitude that brings us happiness.”

The Parkdale native is the creator of Gratitude University, a nonprofit working to share the power of practicing gratitude. Through after-school programs and an online book, Sara Rose is shining a light on the value of thankful thinking.

Last year, before the pandemic closed schools, Sara Rose brought her Gratitude University approach to the after-school program at Parkdale Elementary. To kick-start a gratitude practice, each student was given their own journal and encouraged to express thankfulness through discussion, reading, writing, and art.

Kristi Meyers, coordinator of the program, was delighted to see the youngsters light up with appreciation.

“The students were engaged and inquisitive while deepening their understanding surrounding the importance and health benefits of daily gratitude journaling,” she says. “I believe it is important to provide our youth with lifelong tools they can continually use to improve their social and emotional well-being. Sara’s Gratitude University is a great first step in teaching students about the importance of gratitude and taking care of themselves emotionally as well as physically.”

Sara Rose agrees.

“The kids were so receptive,” she says. “I loved their raw passion and transparency, and how real and authentic they were.”

Sara Rose shares her gratitude practice with students at Parkdale Elementary. Students were provided journals and encouraged to express thankfulness through writing and art. Photo by Gratitude University

As the pandemic wore on and schools shut down, Sara Rose shifted focus.

Inspired by the students’ enthusiasm and the now-urgent need for gratitude during a difficult time, the project evolved into a community project. Sara Rose sent out calls for gratitude. She received hundreds of letters, emails, and art, which evolved into “With Gratitude,” an online book honoring unsung heroes, and essential and frontline workers.

“With Gratitude” contains 108 written and drawn submissions from people of all ages and professions. The initiative started in Hood River, but grew to include entries from Costa Rica, Sweden, Mexico, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Delaware, California, and Oregon. Submissions were sent in Spanish and English. One passage reads: “I am grateful for all the kindness I’ve witnessed and received, and for the humility to recognize it.”

For Sara Rose—a 2010 graduate of Hood River High School born and raised in Parkdale—the project has served as a sweet homecoming. She attended Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, where she earned a degree in fashion marketing and management.

After graduating, Sara Rose moved to New York, where she worked in marketing and product design, as well as community events and planning.

While in New York, she made a friend, Teddy Droseros, creator of Grateful Peoples Journals. Sara Rose began each day by writing down a few things she was thankful for. She says it changed her world.

“I thought, ‘This is so awesome. Does everyone know this?’” she says.

In 2019, Sara Rose left New York and returned to Oregon. Back in Parkdale, she launched her own marketing company, Creative Co. by Sara Rose, and was eager to share her newfound practice with others.

Isabel Pitones Serrano expresses gratitude for teachers. Photo by Gratitude University

“Gratitude doesn’t have to be this grandiose thing,” she says. “It can be a cup of coffee, sunshine—the little things. Gratitude is a muscle that needs to be worked, and it’s so cool from a scientific level, too.”

More than just a feel-good gesture, practicing gratitude has been scientifically proven to boost health and happiness. It can rewire your brain, kick-starting the production of dopamine and serotonin— the feel-good neurotransmitters that create a feeling of happiness and contentment. Numerous studies have shown that shifting your mindset to focus on the good acts as a natural antidepressant. Neuroscience research has found gratitude helps people connect to something larger than themselves: other people, nature, or a higher power.

“There’s a gratitude circuit in your brain, badly in need of a workout,” notes neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb. “Strengthening that circuit brings the power to elevate your physical and mental health, boost happiness, improve sleep and help you feel more connected to other people.”

Sara Rose has become a one-woman gratitude guru.

“Having a daily gratitude practice has had an immensely positive impact on my life,” she says. “Every day poses its unique set of challenges, but committing to gratitude daily has helped me tackle each day with a new mindset. I am more thankful for what I do have, understand what it means to be happy, live in the present, and live more positively. I honestly see the world through a new lens.”

Visit Gratitude University to read “With Gratitude.”

Ready to Practice Gratitude?

Here are some ways to cultivate gratitude on a regular basis.

  • Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down one or two things you’re grateful for each day. Your thankfulness can be small, such as a cup of coffee; or large, such as your family, your faith, or your health. If you are not comfortable writing, try drawing or painting your appreciation.
  • Write a thank-you note. Share your appreciation with another and you will make yourself feel good too.
  • Thank someone silently. No time to write? It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you.
  • Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves quieting the mind by focusing on the present moment.
  • What went well? Before falling asleep, think of three good things that went well and quietly give thanks.