by Lee Pierre
A strong foundation supports a structure through many a storm. Creating a good foundation is what Sherman Sr. and Clara Lea did with their son, Sherman Lea Jr. They forecasted challenges that he would surely face as a young Black male. Together, this family stood strongly on their beliefs and morals leading to many combined accomplishments and Sherman Jr. has had his fair share of them.
Sherman speaks of how it was stressed to him at an early age to do the right thing by both parents. “I live my life to try to make them proud. I appreciate what they have given me.”
He recalls how his mother was a quiet woman of few words however when she did speak, she shared wisdom. He considered her to be the strategist of the family. “If I made a comment about what I may or might not do, she would say, you might not want to come off like this or that. In other words, she kept me grounded.” Sherman feels that his strong upbringing and his life experiences have taken him far in life.
“One of my biggest assets is that I don’t make a lot of emotional decisions. I sit back and objectively look at things. I make decisions from facts, not my feelings. I’ve been in situations where things didn’t go so well. People around me said they would just blow off that situation, just because things started off rocky. No, we are going to stay here. We worked it out and ended up in a better position. I saw what could happen, the potential in it.”
Sherman grew up in Roanoke, graduated in 1998 from William Fleming High School. He continued his education at Virginia State University then transferred and graduated from University of Virginia at Wise, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree. At age 19, he completed an internship at a prison working directly with the inmates. It was an eye opening experience for him at that young age – to hear everyone talking about how they wished they could go back to “when they were younger.”
This experience stayed with Sherman even after the internship ended. “I realized how you have to take life seriously in terms of who you are hanging around. I heard first hand stories. We would sit in a room with the inmates having therapy sessions. They talked about what was going on outside the walls and how it affected them inside the walls. We were trying to give them support. That is where I heard all the stories about what was going on and it just made me become more serious about life. I was changed. I had spent my summer going through five to six gates, hearing them lock behind me daily. I knew how easily certain decisions could lead to that because that was all I heard.”
After graduating, Sherman returned to that same prison as a clinical social worker. He was able to witness some of the changes, those who wanted to make changes, during therapy sessions which allowed them to talk about life and other things. After a year or so, he transitioned to an adult probation and parole officer serving the Roanoke community. He noticed a correlation between criminal activity and individuals’ abilities to manage their mental illness symptoms.
“I was sort of a probation officer/social worker where I could help inmates re-enter society; not punitively. I told them, ‘If you go back to prison, you’re going to put yourself back.”
Sherman took pride in being the change by concentrating more on rehabilitation rather than locking up. He had witnessed and heard stories during his internship that caused him to think that the current criminal justice system needed major reform because it seemed that sometimes it doesn’t work.
Sherman wanted to help. He recognized the huge pressure outside factors pose that could make a person become a criminal. Nonetheless, these are intelligent and talented brothers who are searching for a way of dealing with drug use and in some cases, mental health issues.
“It’s amazing what some people can do when they’re not on drugs. They get caught up, start using drugs when they’re 14 or 15, then live a life of crime. Their IQs are through the roof. So now they’re clean and sober, and I’m having this conversation with them; they’re able to talk. It led me down that path and I wanted to be able to help.”
Sherman takes pride in ushering the change he believes he can establish in the criminal justice system. Joining the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice (NABCJ) was the catalyst for him to fine tune his vision of rehabilitation of prisoners and seeing how they can change their life. NABCJ, founded in 1974, promotes change within the criminal justice system and also empowers a network to help Blacks to grow and succeed in all walks of life. Shortly after joining, Sherman became the vice president of a chapter. After a year, the board of directors voted him in as president. This association is the avenue to connect and be in the forefront of the change in the criminal justice system. The association has chapters around the country and student chapters as well. His involvement doesn’t stop there.
Sherman is the owner and Executive Director of New Hope Support Services, LLC (NHSS), a human services organization that provides community-based mental health support and has offices throughout Southwest, Southside, and Central Virginia. Giving back to the community is a priority for Lea, Jr. he speaks on social issues and is active board member on numerous nonprofit organizations including NABCJ board member; founding board member of Urban Professional League (Roanoke); board member for the Roanoke City School Foundation and the Salvation Army Board of Directors; and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Incorporated.
Sherman has truly honed his vision of change while developing his ‘foundation’ to make a difference.