Every Sunday after church, young Sylisa Lambert returned home to gather around the dinner table with her family. But every Sunday, that family looked a little different. There might be extra aunties, uncles, or new cousins, connected to Sylisa not through blood but through the pure compassion and love her parents always gave to those in need. “A lot of my upbringing was created around this idea of being part of a community,” she reflects today. “My parents were very religious and active in the church, and they always opened their hearts and their home to people who were down on their luck. If someone asked assistance, my parents never asked why. They only said, how can I be helpful?”
The people who sought solace in the Lambert home might have lost their own home in a fire. Maybe they were fleeing domestic violence or trying to overcome an addiction. Rather than softening Sylisa’s heart to the struggling, however, the exposure prompted her to construct a wall against it. “I loved growing up in a small community where everyone knew one another,” she says. “But my family in particular was in a constant state of giving, and I never saw anyone giving back. It didn’t feel fair. When I turned eighteen and went off to college, my goal was to get as far away from service as I possibly could.”
But even service was more palatable than math, and in an attempt to avoid taking a Calculus class, Sylisa settled for several psychology and social work courses. One required that she do an internship, and she was placed in a psychiatric hospital. “Despite my upbringing, I thought addiction and mental illness was a character flaw,” she recalls. “Even though I had had a lifetime of exposure, I didn’t believe it was real.”
All that changed, however, when Sylisa met a young woman, only a couple years older than herself, suffering from dissociative identity disorder. They sat outside together one day, and as the woman stared Sylisa in the eye, she extinguished a lit cigarette on her own arm without even flinching. “That was the moment I began to really understand the lives of those with serious mental illness,” Sylisa affirms. “She had suffered an incredibly traumatic event earlier in her life, and in that moment, I began to think differently about what it must be like for her, trying to recover from something so terrible while also facing stigma and moral judgment from others. My heart filled with a tremendous compassion I had never been able to tap into, and the servant calling that had been cultivated in me all through my childhood began to emerge.”
Now the President and CEO of Pathway Homes, a nonprofit non-time-limited housing and supportive services organization for adults with serious mental illness and co-occurring disabilities, as well as a co-owner of Alliance Therapy Center LLC, Sylisa is a leader in mental health service innovation through individual empowerment. Her approach embraces a spirit of hope and self-determination, committed to serving those most in need as her parents have always done. “I’m so grateful I had that moment of grace and realization that transformed me into a servant leader,” she remarks. “Now I know that my life’s mission has always been to give, to love, to impact, and to leave the world better than it was, because the gift is in the giving.”
Pathway Homes was first incorporated in 1980 in the basement of a church as Pathways to Independence. At that time, mental health services were scant in Fairfax County, and the community wanted local access to quality and affordable mental health services, residential facilities, psychiatric hospitals, and housing designed to promote reintegration back into society after hospitalization. The organization won a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to fund its first four homes, and today owns over four hundred properties serving six hundred individuals.
With a team of 140 employees, Pathways serves its individuals through three main pillars of assistance. The first involves mental health direct services, psychiatric and counseling services, and healthcare. Second, it deals in real estate to acquire and provide affordable housing. And third, it works to advocate and educate the public, dispelling the ignorance and stigma that bars so many individuals with mentally illness from reaching their potential. “We talk about incredible people like Beethoven, Van Gogh, Robin Williams, and Martin Luther King Jr, who all suffered from mental illness but had incredible impact on the world,” Sylisa says. “We also hire counselors, receptionists, administrative staff, and advocates who have experienced mental illness themselves. They share their lived experiences and personal stories, which empowers the whole community. We’re seeing recovery in ways many people would think aren’t possible”
Pathways now runs state-of-the-art assisted living facilities for people with psychiatric disabilities and severe medical conditions. It also operates group homes, townhomes, scatter sites, and individual apartment programs across the Northern Virginia area, and recently began offering services in Central Florida as well. “Pathways is unique because we’re a ‘housing first’ organization,” Sylisa explains. “We believe that housing is a right, not a privilege, so we offer people a home first and foremost. We’re also a harm reduction model, which means that if someone in our program relapses, we won’t kick them out. We work with them to help them understand the natural, normal consequences of substance abuse, educating them on how it impacts their lives. We also help them socialize into the greater community so they feel part of something. This creates a sense of improved self confidence and self esteem and a desire to give back.”
Sylisa’s approach is rooted in the deeply-held conviction that people with mental illness can, and do, recover. By investing in the person to understand their needs, the Pathways team focuses on listening to the individual’s authentic voice, designing best practice programming that has been replicated both nationally and internationally. “We believe that care must be a partnership between individual and provider,” she insists. “It’s why, at both Pathway Homes and Alliance Therapy, the authentic voice of the individual must remain central at all times. That person holds within them the course that is best tailored to their ongoing success, and thanks to this approach, 100 percent of our individuals served seek to engage in bettering themselves.”
Sylisa’s own authentic voice draws its cadence, gentle but resolute, from Culpeper, a beautiful Southern town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Her grandfather had been born a slave, and Culpeper was the last county in the Commonwealth to desegregate, only three short years before Sylisa started first grade there. Still, she felt as though racism never really impacted her. “I’ve always felt fully assimilated and equal with respect to both race and gender,” she affirms.
For those that came before her, however, the progress of the era was a thing of remarkable beauty symbolized by the little girl’s success. On the day she was given a crown and award for getting the best grades in her class, her parents spent $55 on a small white dress, white leggings, and little white shoes for her. Her mother meticulously curled and pressed her hair, the family gathered in the park to see her crowned. “At the time, all I knew was that I was supposed to smile and not act silly,” she laughs today. “But I was the first African American child at the school to receive that honor, and it meant so much to my family. They still keep a picture of me from that day, and it reminds me of what a gift my parents gave me by raising me to not see color. Though I was often the only African American child in my class, I always felt like I belonged, and I know it’s because my parents raised me with such a strong core.”
As a girl, Sylisa was always tagging along wherever her father went. He worked blue collar jobs for Northern Virginia Electric Company and Westinghouse as an electrical technician, while Sylisa’s mother was a school teacher before leaving work to invest full-time in the family. “She’s always been the matriarch of the family, deeply engaged in raising the children and taking care of us all,” Sylisa says. “She grew up the youngest girl of a family of twelve, and she sacrificed time and again for the benefit of her brothers and sisters. She’s the most unselfish person I’ve ever met, committed to fortifying generations within our family. She passed on to me a sense of family and connectedness, and today, there’s absolutely nothing I love more than being a mother to my two perfectly imperfect children.”
While her mother was always relatively quiet, her father remains a sparkling conversationalist and thriving entrepreneur, always up to something. “Together, we always dibbled and dabbled in things, fascinated by the thrill of creating,” Sylisa remembers. “I’d go to Amway conventions with him, and I remember helping him clean up law offices as part of a cleaning business he started. There’s something very humbling about ensuring you understand the value of work, and I do the same thing with my children today.”
Both father and mother raised Sylisa and her older sister with a strong work ethic, and though neither parent had graduated from college themselves, they always emphasized the importance of education. From the time she was very young, Sylisa knew she would be attending college later in life, and she went on to become the first college graduate in her family. She loved sports, shooting with her father, and babysitting when she was very young, going on to work odd jobs at Granny Franny’s fish place, McDonald’s, and Country Cookin’. In high school, she played basketball, ran track, and participated in Marine Corps ROTC. She also served as State President for the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), and won a Parliamentary Procedure contest that landed her a trip to San Francisco and her first time flying on a plane.
Loyal, competitive, character-driven, and mischievous, Sylisa relished the military, business, athletic, academic, and social experiences of her youth, and was voted “Best All Around” as her senior superlative. She graduated in the top tenth percent of her class and was recruited on a basketball scholarship to East Tennessee State University, piecing together the rest of her tuition and board with an Army ROTC scholarship and a small sum from FBLA. Her plans shifted, however, when the marine she loved returned from service abroad. A few years older than her, he was the brother of her close friend—a man Sylisa had seen in photos and chosen as the one she wanted to be with long before they met. When Eric was stationed at Quantico, Sylisa decided to enroll at George Mason, where she joined Army ROTC and planned to major in business.
After her transformative pivot back to social work, Sylisa graduated early with a degree in psychology and social work. One week later, she married Eric, who had returned from service in Okinawa and promised her parents he would wait until she had finished her undergraduate degree before tying the knot. She landed a job as a public interest communications manager and fundraiser, advocating for the World Wildlife Federation, the Jacques Cousteau Society, and the New York Opera, but knew her heart and future truly lay in therapy—even though her first job as a therapist would mean a $6,000 pay cut. Fortunately, she landed a full scholarship to Catholic University, where she completed her masters in social work. She worked with a wide range of patient populations, drawing on her formative years to connect with those she sought to help. “Whether in a hospital, a group home, a prison, on the street, in the inner city, or in rural areas, I felt comfortable because no population was foreign to me, thanks to my upbringing,” she affirms. “I started to develop a sense of who I was in that community, and I was inspired by the ability to have an impact and create change.”
After completing her masters, Sylisa gave birth to her son. Soon after, she had a groundbreaking experience that would come to be a defining pillar of her professional philosophy when, at five months pregnant with her second child, she was told she had lost the baby. It was supposed to be a routine sonogram, and though Eric usually accompanied her, he hadn’t been able to make it that day. When the doctor broke the news to her, however, she told him with life-defining conviction that the baby wasn’t dead. “As a psychotherapist, I knew that denial was the first stage of grief, and I knew what the doctor was thinking of me in that moment,” she recalls. “But I also knew that I was right. They tried to reason with me and then send me in for the removal procedure, but I wouldn’t let them. I just told them I was blessed with a child, and that I was going to have her, and that she was going to be okay.”
Sylisa insisted on additional tests at a more advanced facility, and as she drove herself there, she called her family to fill them in and assure them there was no problem. And as it turns out, she was right. “I was carrying the baby low in my back, so the x-ray and kinetic imaging at the first facility couldn’t pick up her movements or heartbeat,” Sylisa explains. “If I hadn’t challenged, and questioned, and stayed true to my internal strength and conviction, I would not have my daughter today. Most of us have been conditioned to accept the prescriptive nature of an authoritative person, particularly a doctor we trust. But because I didn’t, I now have my beautiful daughter we affectionately call “mini me,” who’s so spirited and so full of life. It’s what taught me to challenge respectfully, question the norm, and embrace the paradigm shifts that remind us there isn’t just one way to live your life. It was a profound miracle and tremendous blessing, teaching me that nothing is acceptable until it’s embraced by the individual it impacts.”
Sylisa went on to complete her doctorate—a vastly different kind of challenge now that she had two small children. It would not have been possible without the devotion and help of her family, particularly her mother and Eric. “He’s the most character-driven man I’ve ever known,” she says today. “I often think about the sacrifices he’s made over the years to do what was best for the family, getting me through school or providing for us. He’s so talented and such a beautiful person, and I’m so blessed. He’s put our family first always, and it’s made the most incredible difference in all of our lives.”
Around that time, Sylisa and Eric began dabbling in real estate, flipping homes to help cover the costs of children, education, and a home. Eric took a job at a maximum security prison after leaving the military and then settled at the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Department, where he worked for 25 years. After retiring, he now works as the COO of Alliance Therapy Center, LLC and serves as an adjunct professor. Meanwhile, Sylisa took a job as the manager of Fairfax County’s residential and treatment programs. “Because my father always had multiple jobs and side hustles to be able to provide, I always felt the need to get the next degree or license,” she says. “For me, I felt that I had never done enough, which is why I’m a lifelong learner. I never have a sense of being complete or finished.”
Sylisa enjoyed her twelve years in county government, experiencing the whole spectrum of services, but she often felt that the bureaucracy barred her from being truly solution-focused in getting services to individuals in the most effective way possible. “With Eric’s counsel, I decided I wanted to transition out of government because I felt there were often unnecessary barriers to providing needed services to individuals in the community,” she recounts. “I felt I could impact change better if I were on my own.” Together, they decided to launch Alliance Therapy, a private practice specializing in addiction services and offering a full continuum of outpatient services. Alliance has developed a specialty around PTSD and the veteran population, and has since flourished into one of the most respected private practices in the area.
Sylisa had worked with Pathways in her previous capacity, and around that same time, her leadership style and approach caught the eye of then-President and CEO, Joel McMair. Sylisa, as well, loved the organization because it resonated so deeply with her life philosophy, and because it presented an opportunity to impact change more expediently on a larger scale with infrastructure that was already in place. She joined Pathways in 2000 as Senior VP and COO, and Joel became a wonderful mentor as she stepped up into the President and CEO roles. “The process allowed me to fully understand the financial and internal operational aspects of running the organization, while my background in psychotherapy has been really helpful in allowing me to exercise oversight,” she explains. “I’ve found that having a clinical background as a CEO is relatively rare, but powerful.”
Thanks in part to her unique skill set and training, Sylisa is uniquely equipped to remain exceptionally cognizant of and attentive to her environment—one of the most important assets she brings to her leadership roles. It’s a skill that allows her to move the mission forward in a strategic and intentional way, attuned to the experiences of other members of the team for better alignment. “When I’m connecting with other people, I can feel it,” she says. “I get a good sense of what’s resonating with them and what isn’t. It’s that human piece of leadership where you begin with leading from behind. As you move forward, you find that you have followship, and then fellowship. In this way, Pathways is a collective forum where we’ve allied ourselves with passion to develop an incredible agency of the smartest, most empowered people around, all guided by the desire to do what’s best for the agency.”
So, too, has Sylisa been guided each day by her unwavering faith, as she was on the morning that she declared to her leadership team that Pathways should anticipate abundance in the coming year. “They kind of just looked at me,” she remembers. “But I insisted that it was promised to us. We had six hundred individuals on our waitlist, and I told my team that we had to anticipate that we would be able to provide, because we were going to receive the funding to do it. Shortly thereafter, we presented a proposal to DHCD and landed $2.7 million to develop housing for individuals with serious mental illness, co-occurring illnesses, and chronic illnesses. I’m reminded of that success every time I look at the cross, which signifies my responsibility to help realize all that individuals have yet to receive. For me, the cross depicts hope, unconditional love, servitude, leadership, and my anticipation of spiritual abundance. It’s this feeling I’ve had all my life that I’m in God’s favor, and that I’m meant to empower and create hope for others to help them realize their greatest potential.”
As a leader, Sylisa invests in the talent in the people around her, identifying the strengths of her team members and working to transform them into passion. Her style is profoundly motivational and refreshingly transparent, always conveyed authentically and rooted in sincerity. Her emotional intelligence is paired with a strategic, analytical leaning that allows her to measure and market her mission in a way that engenders investment from the community. In 2014, Sylisa was recognized as a top nonprofit CEO by the Center for Nonprofit Advancement in Maryland, DC, and Virginia, and Pathways was recognized nationally in 2015 as one of the best nonprofits to work for. Now, as Pathways seeks to replicate its model and empower other organizations with its proven intellectual property, Sylisa looks for opportunities to diversify and grow its private funding streams. “Our success so far has been incredibly humbling, and it inspires me to do more,” she says. “We can’t stop until we’ve eliminated our entire waitlist.” Along the journey to accomplishing this goal, she completed Harvard University Business School’s Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management course in 2016—a transformative experience that gave her the tools to scale up, reinfuse passion, and embrace the work of non-profits as social enterprising businesses.
This commitment to change doesn’t end with Sylisa’s immediate professional obligations. She serves as Vice Chair of the Virginia Association of Community-Based Providers and co-Chair of the Fairfax Fair Housing Committee, and advocates at the state level for community mental health solutions that work. “Our approach allows people to live longer and decreases the cost of taxpayer dollars,” she says. “It’s a far better return on investment than an emergency room, jail cell, or shelter. Permanent supportive housing is what works in recovery, and we’re working to convey that story.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, Sylisa highlights the importance of finding your passion and working for it as hard as possible, while still maintaining balance and remembering what’s really important in life. “I didn’t know exactly where my path would lead me through life, but looking back, I see that I naturally headed in the right direction,” she says. “And nothing has changed me more positively than being a parent to my children, now both college graduates and pursuing careers in service and the military. Watching them grow up has been a miracle, and has enhanced my ability to understand myself better. It’s a wonderful joy to completely invest in them and in Eric, and I have loved every minute of our lives together.”
She also looks to the example of her father, an incredible man and devout Christian who always touts the mantra, “God’s got this.” At 83 years young, he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and given six months to live, but a year later, he continues to defy expectations and follow his own path. “He’s gone through six rounds of chemotherapy but has exhibited no symptoms,” she says incredulously. “He epitomizes mindfulness, and living in the day, and trusting the Lord. I find myself here now with this profound gift because it refocused me on what really matters in life. He’s a perfect dad and the most incredible person, and I’m so thankful that I’ve been given this time with him to really reflect and feel grateful.”
Still the tireless entrepreneur with a twinkle in his eye, Sylisa’s father is now working on building a church, having recently identified the location and commenced fundraising. “He has such a beautiful life, and he’s teaching me so much about living, as he always has,” Sylisa says. “Through him, my mother, my husband and beautiful children, my team, the people we serve, and the community we’re part of, I am reminded everyday that life is a gift, and that the gift is in the giving.”