'Education and improved self-esteem can be life changing'. Alumna and CEO of award-winning national charity discussed her success on 17 March.
From working in a bar, to a mention in Gordon Brown’s book and an OBE, former student Sharon Berry spoke to students at a public lecture at the University of St Mark & St John.
Berry graduated in 2000 and went on to set up the award-winning national charity Storybook Dads which helps parents in prison film bedtime stories for their children.
She said: "My time at the University of St Mark & St John gave me the confidence and opportunity to change my life. I hope that I can inspire current students and encourage them to embrace new challenges and aspire to achieve great goals no matter how unobtainable they may seem".
Hayden Gabriel, Programme Leader for Creative Writing and English Literature, said: “Sharon was with us as part of our Visiting Writer Series during which writers, and those engaged with writing-related employment, come to share their experiences. These early evening events are open to all and there’s no admission charge.
“As is so often the case, Sharon’s university education enabled her to re-direct her life and she has put her degree in English from the University of St Mark and St John to excellent and innovative use.
Berry said: “I was a single parent with a young son and working in a pub to get by. It was there that one of the regulars, John, a university lecturer, persuaded me to take 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.
“Since then, to be honest, it feels like I’ve been swept along by the expansion and ever-changing needs of the charity. It’s a long, long way from my barmaid 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 improved self-esteem can be life changing.
“All they need is someone to have a bit of faith in them - just like John in the pub had faith in me back in 1997 – a simple thought that changed my life.
After graduating she spent time training in radio production and became a teacher in a prison.
Combining these skills, she started Storybook Dads at Dartmoor Prison, which has now been disseminated into over 100 men’s and women’s prisons nationwide.
The scheme has won several awards and is heralded as a lifeline for prisoners’ children; reducing their feelings of abandonment, isolation and shame.
The military also use the model so personnel deployed overseas can keep in touch with their children.
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