Sunday, June 3, 2012

Heroine’s Farewell

One of my heroes (a heroine actually) passed away unexpectedly this past week. Her name is Sharon Shields and she was the director of School-Based Youth Services (SBYS) for the public schools in Camden, New Jersey. I only met her in person once, yet we worked together closely for the past seven years writing grants to support the many programs she managed. She was my number one favorite grants work colleague. Her SBYS provided services and supports to children, youth, and families living under extremely difficult, often traumatic, conditions in perhaps the most distressed community in the country. I have no doubt that during her tenure as the SBYS director, Sharon saved hundreds of lives. The programming that she directed, much of which she created and brought to Camden through the grants that we wrote together, was a lifeline to many, many families. Thousands of children completed school and went on to do something constructive with their lives because of Sharon.

Sharon and I began our grants work together on a grant called the Safe Schools and Healthy Students Initiative. It was a federal grant that would have provided $3 million for violence prevention programming. Sharon and I loved this grant because it was so comprehensive and it recognized the importance of coordinating mental health services, early childhood education, substance abuse prevention and treatment, school site safety, law enforcement, and juvenile justice in order to reduce violence in the school and the community. Sharon wanted this grant desperately. We applied for it every year for five years in a row. I have gotten this grant for other school districts that were not half as organized as Camden or as visionary as Sharon and her colleagues. But for some reason this grant eluded us. Sharon and I joked about it being our nemesis. We never managed to get it for Camden and a couple of years ago it was discontinued. Although we never landed that Safe Schools grant, Sharon and I secured a lot of other grants for the district. All told, the two of us raised close to $15 million in grant funds for the Camden schools during the seven years we worked together. Just the week before last, we submitted a grant for funds to increase the availability of therapeutic services in three family schools.

Sharon received her master’s degree in public health from Yale University and she had a strong background in the mental health services field. She especially knew how to work appropriately and effectively with ethnic minorities and people living in poverty, and she was extraordinarily sensitive to issues related to cultural competence. The programs she designed were inclusive, respectful, and always had built-in components that sought to empower those the programs served. She had a passion for improving the lives of children and youth and it was this mission to which she dedicated her life.

She was in her mid-fifties, only a couple of years younger than I. It feels peculiar to speak about her in the past tense. Because I worked with her via phone, the strongest memory I have of her is how she answered when I called her. I can still hear her voice in my head; and that hilarious cackle-ish laugh of hers. This week, as I have struggled to believe that she is gone, I have come to realize that she has been one of those rare people in my life whom I view as a personal heroine. She was the sort of no-nonsense person who quite simply got it done. She made a huge difference. She did not waste her time here, she did something meaningful and tremendously positive with her life. 

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