By Vickie Evans-Nash
Sheila Raye Charles, born Sheila Jean Robinson, spent much of her life surrounded by the rich and famous. Charles, vocalist and daughter of the late and legendary Ray Charles, also focused her life on the entertainment industry.
Using her vocal talents, she went on tour with well-known entertainment groups such as DeBarge, Next, and Mint Condition. In 1990, she was voted New Artist of the Year at the Minnesota Black Music Awards. But even with the personal entertainment success she experienced, she says, “I could not find a peaceful rest inside of myself.”
“My father loved the music, he loved the women,” Charles says. Feeling abandoned by her father, she recalls, “It was very easy for me to find my way to the end of a crack pipe. It relieved all the pain. It made me feel above everybody. I actually felt like I could cope and I was free in my mind.”
However, drug addiction actually became one of the most imprisoning situations she had ever put herself in. As a result of being a slave to crack cocaine, Charles’ reputation in the entertainment industry soon disintegrated. “I’d have all these gigs, and I wouldn’t show up,” she explains. “I’d be at the crack house.”
Reflecting on memories of her childhood and her sexual, physical, mental and drug abuse, she says, “I felt very unworthy to be anything good.”
Having to live up to the expectation of being an international icon’s daughter and never being able to fill his shoes, she said it was quite some time before she came to know that “realistically, he was just a man.”
She experienced three bouts of federal imprisonment, primarily due to her crack cocaine addiction. After her mother’s death and because of her addiction, Charles had severed all ties with her family, lost custody of her five children, and gone through hundreds of thousands of dollars of her father’s money, which he spent in an effort to keep her out of prison. By her third incarceration, she says she had lost everything and had no real support from the outside world.
One Way Up Prison Ministry is a nonprofit, faith-based organization founded by Charles in an effort to fill the gap when those released from prison, like herself, lack adequate support. Charles’ mission is to visit federal and state prisons for both women and men delivering a message of hope.
Her hope is to also supply those with whom she comes into contact with the tools and programs necessary to become stable and productive citizens. She credits the members of other faith-based organizations who came to visit her while incarcerated, like Network for Life, based in Austin, Texas, and Minnesota-based Teen Challenge for changing her life’s direction.
Charles says that through these organizations she met people who allowed her to see things “in a way that was self-enlightening, changing [my thoughts] of who I was, not who society thought I was.”
Every day, Charles explains, thousands of men and women who are incarcerated have no communication with anyone in the outside world.
Many have no family support, often because they have severed ties because of drug addiction or other life choices that family members were either unwilling or unable to support them through. Without family, they reenter society unprepared and with a strong likelihood of returning to a lifestyle that led them to incarceration.
Because of her own experiences, Charles says, “I believe it’s my reasonable duty to go back in and tell people that yes, there is hope.” Before she developed a relationship with God, she says, she hadn’t realized that “I didn’t have to be depressed or oppressed and belittled and scared.”
Obtaining employment and mentoring services are primary tools necessary in deterring repeat offences. Since most newly released ex-offenders have no high school diploma, opportunities to expand education or obtain a skilled trade are equally important to preventing a return to a criminal lifestyle.
Charles’ vision is of an employment training camp, using the Brookdale Mall in Brooklyn Center as a possible site for a facility devoted to supporting ex-offenders’ successful reentry into life outside prison walls.
In the early spring of next year, her goal is a fundraising event devoted to the creation of such a facility.
“I do this because of the fact that I have a personal experience,” Charles explains. “I saw the effect that it had on me to hear somebody bring a message of hope.”
For more information on One Way Up Prison Ministry, go to http://onewayupprisonministry.org.
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.