Serving others has always come naturally to Shirlean Graham, and she says although it really wasn’t intentional, she has always found herself in the type of job that involved helping people in one way or another.
She was born into a family with 10 children, and her parents took in four more and raised them as if they were their own. They taught her to give of her time, money and effort. She explained, their house was always the one in the neighborhood where all the kids liked to play, and her mom thought nothing of making lunch for every kid in the area, so it’s probably natural that she grew up to give back to the community without even planning it.
Mrs. Graham is what you would call a Jack of all trades, although I wouldn’t say she is the master of none. She seems to be very competent at everything she attempts. She said when she was young she determined to learn to do things that you could support yourself with so she never actually went to college, but she obtained every possible certification she could get her hands on. She has been a certified nursing assistant and an aerobics instructor. She also owned a hotdog shop for a time called Shirlean’s Designer Dogs. She has a cosmetologist license and at one time had a hair salon called The Classy Lady Beauty Salon. She attended night school in order to get her physician’s assistant certification and worked for 10 years for Dr. Fred Alsup in St. Petersburg before going to work at the YWCA as their program director and homeless family director.
When she first arrived in Okeechobee around 1990, she said she heard about a group working with battered women and went into Park Street Mission where Grace Ministries was located to see if they had anything she could do. She filled out paperwork, but for two years, no one called.
One day, though, she received a call from Priscilla Smyth and Mrs. Graham went in to talk to her. She said they talked from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. that day, and she ended up working at what later became Martha’s House for 25 years as victim’s advocate and for a short time as shelter director. Her job — her goal — was primary prevention.
One of the most fascinating things about Mrs. Graham is her involvement with the Chobee Steelers. The Chobee Steelers are a group of youths, in sixth through 12th grade, who are taught to play the steel drums. The idea for the group came after Mrs. Graham said she realized there was nothing for kids to do in Okeechobee that didn’t involve sports, and she remembered how much she loved listening to the people who played the drums down on the beach when she was young. She used to dance while they played, she said. She had no idea if anyone would be interested, but she decided she was going to try, so she borrowed some drums from the St. Lucie County school system and found a teacher, Carlton Lambert. She said he is so good with those kids, it is ridiculous.
She explained that although the kids do learn to play the drums, that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about teaching them to become productive citizens and helping them stay in school. The music is just a way to get them in there. She talks to them about everything from healthy relationships to bullying, and, she explained, she does it differently than most. She doesn’t focus on the bad. She said she tries to give them examples of what good relationships are supposed to look like so they will recognize the bad when they see it. “The kids know when they tell me something, it will go no further unless they are going to hurt themselves or someone else,” she said. “It’s important for them to have someone they can trust.”
Mrs. Graham explained that the program begins with a nine-week camp each summer, funded by the Children’s Services Council. During the camp, the kids are expected to learn 15-20 songs, which they play all year, and whatever donations they receive are saved and used as a scholarship for any seniors who are graduating that year. The children can begin with the Steelers at the age of 12 and remain until they graduate.
After the first year, a friend purchased two drums and gave them to the group, and Mrs. Graham bought two. Now the group owns all the drums they use and no longer have to borrow from the school. Since the program began about 10 years ago, not one student has quit school. Their motto is: “Life is full of choices; good ones have benefits, bad ones have consequences. I will think great things. I will believe great things. I will achieve great things. I WILL SUCCEED.”
Working with débutantes is another activity Mrs. Graham has been involved in for the last three years. The young ladies, Ladies of Elegance, must have good grades, be of good character, earn a certain number of community service hours and have a letter of recommendation before they are accepted. They attend workshops on healthy relationships, image and college prep before the Presentation of the Debs, which this year will be on April 16.
Mrs. Graham is a member of the First Missionary Baptist Church and sings in the choir. In 2010, she began the first African-American chapter of the Red Hat Society, Onyx and Pearls, in Okeechobee, but it is no longer active. She and her husband, Rodney, have been married for 23 years, and she said he is a huge blessing to her. “He lets me do what I want and never complains,” she said. She has three daughters, three grandsons and two great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Graham is supposed to be retired, but she is busier than most people with full-time jobs, because like her mother before her, her heart overflows with love for the children surrounding her.