Monday, April 01, 2013

Sheila Raye Charles: Gladly Does the Daughter of Ray Charles Serve God, Save At-Risk Youth -- and SING!

Sheila Raye Charles is the daughter of the legendary, internationally famous musician Ray Charles, left. That's how she has been known all her life  and, to say the least, it has felt strange. She didn't know who she was.

She now knows. And, having found her newly discovered self, she is "taking advantage" of her dad's name, as in this poster --  to serve God and help others in desperate need.

Sheila Raye Charles recently performed live in Worcester, Mass., where I live, and I went to see her. It opened my eyes to her incredible story and talent. Plus I learned of something very big going on in my home city that I knew absolutely nothing about.

So who was and is Sheila Raye Charles? Let's start with  a short feature documentary in which she talks candidly about her life and pressures as the daughter of Ray Charles. Click here. 

After decades as a huge star, international recognition, and multiple awards and honors, Ray Charles passed away in 2004 of liver failure. A longtime heroin addict, he was 73. Also in 2004, "Ray," the movie about his life, starring Jamie Fox, came out to huge success and major awards.

Sheila Raye Charles watched that movie over and over. She hoped  the movie would help her understand a father  she had always desperately wanted to be a part of her life. She was 12 when she met her Dad for the first time. The few times she spoke to him on the telephone, she says, all he talked about was how angry he was at her mom.

The movie helped, but only a little. All she had in common with her Dad, she sadly realized, was that "we were both addicts." Her mom was also a crack cocaine addict.

In  the Worcester Telegram and Gazette,  Linda Bock described the background of Sheila Ray Charles as follows:

"She survived sexual abuse as a child, a 20-year addiction to crack cocaine, losing custody of her five children she had with four different men, physical violence, three stints in federal prison, a hard-shelled famous father who fathered 12 children with nine different women and the trauma of meeting siblings she never knew she had at her father's funeral....

"... Two of her five children were legally adopted, and the other three grew up in foster care.  She has four daughters and a son.  She has re-established a relationship with her oldest daughters, and with two other daughters through court orders, and is praying for the day she might be reunited with the others."

This story  piqued my curiosity. I had grown up with Ray Charles hit songs  like "Georgia On My Mind" and "Hit The Road Jack" -- and  hum them now decades later. Also, Ms. Charles was appearing in the notoriously "bad" part of the city, Main South. I wondered: What's with that?

Main South is where drug dealers, prostitutes, and petty criminals ply their trade. Go there, we say in the comfortable West Side, and you're asking to get mugged. In a story I did exactly seven years ago, I described just how bad Main South was then. Click here here.

The area has improved since then, but is still the bad part of the city. With my own background, I am no stranger to mean streets. When I was a teen, the streets were the only place where I felt at home. I grew up in foster homes without family or love, as do so many of the kids in Main South today. I see them as  no different from what I was.

These days, however, I'm at home and used to the more upscale West Side. Main South, to be honest, is now outside my comfort zone. I see that as a good reason to go there.

Ms. Charles was appearing in the Straight Up Cafe and Community Center. It's a place I had never set foot in  and knew nothing about. Good, that's what I like. Exploration. Adventure. Surprise. Answers to questions, such as: Can Sheila Raye Charles sing anywhere near as well as her dad?

So after I dropped off a couple of grandkids with their aunt and with my wife Barbara occupied with two others, I was on my own for a few hours. Unsupervised free time! That is always my cue to go out the door to somewhere different.

I grabbed my smartphone and notebook and headed for Main South. When I reached the Straight Up Cafe and Community Center, I got a surprise. Expecting a sorry looking mess, I found instead a modern, professionally designed, obviously new exterior.

Classy! On Main South?

When I walked inside, it was the same. This was an eating place with a full menu, including take-out, catering, and delivery. With free Wi-Fi and a super welcoming atmosphere, I could see myself hanging out there with my laptop and my New York Times.

I was early. Sheila Raye Charles was not due to perform for another hour, at 5:30 P.M., but the place was filling fast.

I was lucky to find a nice corner seat by the street window. Soon I was chatting with David Langer,  as he scurried around doing last-minute prep and directing young people working behind the counter.

"What's your job?" I asked.

"I'm the Cafe manager," he said, "as much as you can manage young kids."

He said that his job was to "mentor and coach" kids coming out of juvenile lock-up, to help them gain work experience and become independent through Straight Ahead Ministries. He pointed to the young people working behind the counter. "They are all in the program."

He said he had been with the Ministry for five years. Before that, he designed "hospitality interiors" for restaurants. That explains the great interior.

"So, you're a pro in the restaurant business."

"Oh, yes."

In this photo, David Langer is at right. He sits with Robb Zarges as they welcome arrivals.

Admission was free. Donations were welcome. Donors got a box of Milk Chocolate Butter Nut Munch made and donated by the nuns of Mount Saint Mary's Abbey in Wrentham, Mass.

Robb Zarges is Executive Director of Straight Ahead Ministries. He's a people person. When I said that I might write something, he pointed to a table. "Over there, all kinds of information about the program." He gave me his card in case I had questions.

I asked about Sheila Raye Charles. "Oh, she's downstairs talking to kids in our transition program.  You're certainly welcome to go down and observe. There are other press down there."

I gave Robb my card. "You give me your card, I give you mine," I said, handing him mine. "That's fair, right?"

"Right," he said. "And thank you for your service."

"How do you know that I'm a veteran?"

"When you took out your wallet to give me your card, I saw your VA card."

This guy doesn't miss a trick.

I went over to the table and picked up information on the Straight Ahead Ministries and the Straight Up Cafe and Community Center.  Having been in advertising myself for years, I found the brochures and informational cards highly professional. Yet another surprise.

Back at my window seat, I was looking through the info when someone walked in the door that made me think I was seeing things. He was Rich Pyle, one of the guys with whom I had played doubles tennis at the Greendale Y that very morning! 

What was Rich doing in Main South?

I got up, sneaked behind him, and grabbed him by the shoulders. When he turned around and saw me, his mouth snapped wide open and his eyes bulged like in a horror movie. He looked like he was going to drop dead of a heart attack.

But before he could say anything, I announced to the people around us, "This guy doesn't belong here. This guy doesn't belong here." As I led him to my table, people were looking around at each other, concerned.

"It's okay," I said. "Don't worry, I'm going to take care of him."

No one found my act funny, certainly not Rich. I guess it wasn't. Oh, well.

At the table, I said, "Rich!"

He said, "George!"

"You don't belong here. What the hell are you doing here?" I said.

"I'm on the Board of Directors."

Now it was heart attack time for me.


"I'm on the Board of Straight Ahead Ministries. We're in 19 states."

"I didn't realize it was so big."

I was also shocked to learn that  the central office of this national organization helping young people transition from juvenile lock-up to independent lives was in Worcester. And located in the heart of  Main South, of all places!

Straight Ahead Ministries works with more than 400 juvenile detention centers nationally and in five countries. It has been 25 years since it was founded by Scott Larson, the President of Straight Ahead. One-time gang leaders are now on the national staff and they are credited with reducing gang violence in many areas.

As a social venture of Straight Ahead Ministries, Straight Up is a neighborhood cafe and community center. It is a safe haven where former juvenile inmates can get protection, feel understood, make friends, and rebuild their lives. Here young people leaving juvenile lock-up have the opportunity to work on-site to gain experience and develop a resume that will help them secure long-term employment.  

Working as a team, they provide peer training, manage the daily operations of the cafe, participate in marketing campaigns, and organize community center events like open mic night, recreational tournaments, sport events, and peer groups. 

They also work in the adjacent affiliated New You, which sells used clothing, accessories, and small household items. All proceeds from the Straight Up Cafe and New You benefit at-risk youth in Worcester. 

Rich and I soon got over the shock of the eerie coincidence of running into each other here. We chatted awhile before Rich had to go. We parted still friends, I think, I hope. We both left with a box of chocolates, compliments of the nuns of Saint Mary's Abbey.

I went downstairs and there was Sheila Ray Charles standing up there in front of a roomful of entranced youngsters. All of them were aged 14 to 24, out of lock-up and in the Straight Ahead re-entry program.

They listened as the daughter of Ray Charles told them how the world knew Ray Charles, but that she didn't; all her life, she didn't even know herself.

"All I knew, " she said, "was twenty years of crack cocaine, five lost children, and going in and out of federal prison."

She said that when she was drunk, "I didn't have to be me. I could be anything I wanted to be. I could escape the real me that I didn't like."

In her third stint in prison, however, she said that she discovered her true self, which was in Christ.  "It was three in the morning and I had fallen off the bunk in my cell and I suddenly knew that Christ had come into my life and that it was going to change."

When she got out of prison, she said that she asked God, "What do you want me to do?"

He said, "Write your story. So I wrote my story."

Then she asked God what she should do next. "He said take your testimony and put it to music."

"What?" she said to God. "That's going to be a long story."

But she wrote her song, "Behind the Shades."

"Y'all want to hear it?" she asked her young audience.

It was unanimous. Yes!

Sheila Raye Charles started singing.

"There was nobody. Nobody to see me through. Somebody saved me. He came into my life and ..."

The young people loved the song -- and her message.

Sheila Raye Charles then went upstairs to sing for a packed house eagerly waiting for her. I followed her up. Here's a video I took of her performance, accompanied by her brother Kevin.   Click here.

A shining beacon of hope as she sings,  her message to  young people fresh out of jail is a resounding, "I did it. You can, too!"

So long and keep moving.

Amazon E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his real-life experiences growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison; "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life; "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," is about how to live the title every day; and "Unlove Story," Writing anonymously as "Elvis," a husband, dumped after 38 years of marriage, lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.
For the Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver

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