Sharon Wise identifies herself as a “surviving spirit” after enduring and overcoming child abuse, homelessness, prostitution, incarceration and mental health issues in her lifetime.
The now award-winning Ward 8 filmmaker, artist, motivational speaker, and community advocate has come full circle and is a living example of inspiration and recovery to all she encounters on her daily job as a civil servant, volunteering as a solar panel installer three to five times a year, or on her various travels around the region, country, and globe selling her art and jewelry.
“My personality and fortitude come from living on the streets, having to give my children away to foster care, and coming from the bad homelife that I had,” said Wise, now fifty-nine, who was born in Chicago but has lived in DC for 32 years and now calls Naylor Road in Southeast home.
Josie Mae Sargent gave birth to Wise at 22. Wise was her mother’s fourth child. Wise started running away from home in the third grade at the tender age of 9-years-old because of the utter dysfunction occurring in the household. She was not acquainted with her father (Wavey Nance) and only knew of his existence after his death. He was already married with a family when he met Wise’s mother and never acknowledged the offspring, he sired outside his family unit.
“At my house, you could do and get anything. You could smoke anything, do any drugs, and drink. My mom had five kids, all girls, with five different men. (A sixth child named Bruce died shortly after birth). I never remembered my mom then without a black eye or busted lip. When my mother would pass out, the men would come into my room and touch me inappropriately,” Wise said explaining in detail the challenges she faced and why she would seek the solace of friends’ homes and neighbors.
Nobody ever came looking for her or even seem to miss Wise when she was away from home for days. Eventually those days turned into weeks, and never returning home at all. Wise had her first child – son named Theodore Mercedez Wesby III – at 15 and her second, a girl, – Niyyah Odom – by her 18th birthday.
“Although I was still basically a baby myself and had no idea how to take care of children, I was looking for love from someone who would love me unconditionally.”
The children ended up in the foster care system in Chicago after Wise left her son at the same church where she would often go for a free meal and sustenance. The baby girl was adopted quickly. At the time Wise learned how to turn a couple of articles of clothing into a makeshift toilet, live under a bridge, and do whatever – steal, sell her body, peddle drugs – to survive from day to day.
Mental Illness Diagnosis
After first being hospitalized around the age of nine, Wise was diagnosed with a mental illness which led to her being an in-patient at a laundry list of psychiatric institutions and hospitals – at times on an involuntary basis – in Chicago and other parts of the country. Without question, the young adolescent led a troubled and traumatic life.
“I started running away when I was young, but it didn’t stop when I got older. I was trying to run away from my problems, my life, and me. But I was everywhere that I went. The running did not stop until someone asked, ‘what happened?’ It was easy to answer why I lived on the street, did drugs, prostituted, and committed crimes. When someone asked me ‘what happened’ and showed me that they really cared, that’s when things started to change.”
Acknowledging that she has always been an artist child, Wise remembers one stay at a mental hospital where she drew trees with bloody eyes instead of fruit. The therapists and doctors were so amazed by her drawing that they called dozens of their colleagues to examine her art which they immediately dubbed it as surrealistic. Surrealism is characterized by themes of imagery, color choices, or techniques and its focus on the artist’s deepest thoughts.
Wise’s art, on a miniscule level, has been compared to other Surrealistic artists like Salvador Dali and Henri Emile Benoit Matisse.
The turning point for Wise occurred near Seattle in a King County jail. She was 26 years old. While imprisoned she became a role model for other inmates and would help them cope with their incarceration by showing them how to remain as clean as possible and doing their tasks with pride.
Upon her release from the West Coast detention center, counselors and officials strongly encouraged Wise not to return to her old stomping grounds in Chicago. Instead, she received an opportunity to come to the nation’s capital.
“I jumped at the chance,” Wise said and the rest, as the saying goes, is history! She never looked back. She has enjoyed sobriety for more than 30 years and not committed any crimes in that time span. Wise is now an advocate for others with similar experiences. She is a Certified Wellness Recovery Action Plan Facilitator who also works full-time as a Community Outreach Specialist for the Department of Aging and Community Living (DACL) once known as the Department of Office and Aging.
Wise earned a combined Bachelor and master’s degree in Human Services from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. The Historically Black College or University (HBCU) with notable alumni like poet Langston Hughes and historian Horace Mann Bond, boasts of being the country’s first degree granting HBCU.
Dr. John Santopietro is one of Wise’s biggest cheerleaders. The renowned psychologist is the Senior Vice President of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network and the Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.
“I have known Sharon for more than 10 years. We first met when I was in North Carolina. I had reached out for national figures (to work with and enlighten his patients), and somebody recommended her. She was a natural and used her experiences to really connect and help many others who (had been in similar circumstances),” said Santopietro who has also purchased Wise’s art to further motivate and inspire his patients.
While traversing around the region and the nation, teaching and training peers, government officials, and other interested parties about trauma-informed care and substance abuse prevention, Wise has built a solid following.
“It is more common than people think to recover from mental illness. People in general have a lot of stigmas about mental illness. What makes Sharon unique is that she uses her own experiences to change the world and heal others,” said the psychologist who has been practicing for 25 years.
From Ordeals to Accomplishments
In 2017 Wise graduated from the Solar Works DC Program. However, her proudest accomplishment is probably “Round Midnight” an organization that she started 20 years ago to deliver food and supplies to people on the streets and living in homeless camps like the ones she lived in for almost 10 years. Wise says matter-of-factly that she has a connection to those wayward souls living alone and in limbo.
Wise won a contract from the Department of Behavioral Health to aid people with mental health challenges. She is also an artist-in residence at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital where she gives presentations and brainstorms at conferences that support mental health recovery for consumers around the world. She recently returned from giving a presentation in Europe.
“I am so impressed with what Sharon has done to change her life,” said long-time friend Iris Moore, a secretary to the Deputy Associate Chief Counsel International at the IRS. Moore met Wise back in 1996 when Moore worked as a temporary worker in a downtown office building and became “bosom buddies”.
“Sharon and her son Teddy (who Wise was able to reconnect with the help of her mother who got him out of the foster care system) would take food and blankets late at night to people on the streets. (Wise still works on a relationship with her daughter). She inspired me to help,” said Moore who proudly acclaim that she has always remained in walking distance to Wise when they both first lived in northwest, then northeast, and now southeast. Moore resides on Good Hope Road which she says is about six blocks from Wise’s home.
Inspired as a vehicle to help amend the relationship between her daughter, Wise in partnership with Glenn Holsten, created a short 10-minute film called “Letter to Niyyah” that won a Gold ADDY in 2018. The ADDY Awards is the world’s largest advertising competition with over 40,000 entries annually. Founded in Florida in 1960, the American Advertising Federation, a non-profit industry association, adopted it as a national competition in 1968.
“Nothing happens in your life to you, but it happens for you! When you look at life in that way, you learn as teachings and not failures,” urges Wise.