Back in 1997, Sharon was a single mum, working as a barmaid. Then a comment from a customer inspired her to go back into education and change her life. Within 10 years she had a masters degree, an OBE and had created the Storybook Dads charity which helps thousands of socially excluded families each year.

I left school at 15 and after a brief and unsuccessful stint as an apprentice hairdresser (unsuccessful for my unfortunate clients as well as for me) I went travelling. I had a string of unskilled jobs across Europe – bar work, yacht cleaning in a Spanish marina and working in Burger King in Gibraltar. In my 30s I came back to Cornwall. By then I was a single parent with a young son. So it was back to working in a pub to get by. It was there that one of the regulars, John, a university lecturer, persuaded me to take an English A level and from there to go to university – at the age of 37.


The thought of going to university was completely daunting to me.  None of my family or friends had been and the whole concept was alien. After getting over the initial fear that I would be discovered to be a fraud and kicked out – I loved it. Although I was still quite shy, it helped me to gain confidence and awakened such a hunger for learning that I began to feel like a different person.





So, armed with a masters degree, I began tutoring & volunteering at Channings Wood prison. While I was there I realised just how difficult it was for imprisoned parents to keep in touch with their children…and the negative effects that this had on them. I just wanted to do something to help. So along with the writer in residence, I developed the concept of Storybook Dads. After all, what better way to engage a non-reading, hard-nut prisoner who’s lacks parenting skills and has lost contact with his kids than getting him to read Cinderella! It’s obvious really.

In 2002 I moved to HMP Dartmoor to work as a tutor and in my spare time I’d wander around the wings with a digital recorder and some kids books asking the men if they wanted to make a CD! Then I’d edit them on my home computer. Even though the Governor was supportive, getting the scheme off the ground certainly wasn’t easy.



Working from within the prison, things tended to be 10 times harder and 10 times slower than on the outside. For the first 4 years, I was working from a prison cell so had no access to a phone line, mobile phone or internet access. Obviously, prison security doesn’t lend itself to ideas involving new technology and it was inevitable that there was some negativity as it was perceived to be ‘soft’ on prisoners. It took a long time to win over the staff and sometimes I was met with apathy or even hostility. But  the feedback from prisoners was so positive that I was determined to fight every step of the way;

Some prisoners said it had helped to heal rifts with their partners, some were saying that it was the first time that they really felt they were building a relationship with their kids.  Stuck inside where they really couldn’t do much for their families...they could still do this.

 




The scheme was expanding but what I needed was more help and more money so I decided to become a registered charity in 2003. It was hard work for me as I’d never had any office or business experience so I had to learn everything as I went along. I built up a small but completely dedicated team of staff, trustees and volunteers and together we took the charity from strength to strength.  Our work became valued and recognised by the prison service and we’ve received several  national awards. Gordon Brown even wrote a chapter about my work in his book ‘Everyday Heroes’. Then in 2010 I was stunned to receive an OBE!


To be honest, it feels like I’ve been swept along by the expansion and ever-changing needs of the charity. My long-suffering husband, who I met and married back in 2002, has supported me through everything; the 70 hour weeks, the constant struggle for funding, the enormous responsibility of managing a national charity. It’s a long long way from my bar-maid days! But I still remember how I felt back then - no confidence and no faith in myself and this helps me to empathise with the prisoners we work with.  Many have had little or no education and their total lack of confidence is palpable and pitiful. They associate education with humiliation and failure, which is really sad. But we show them that education and self esteem can be life changing. All they need is someone to have a bit of faith in them - just like John down the pub had faith in me back in 1997 – a simple thought that changed my life.



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