Sherrie Williams’s words of comfort, encouragement and advice to her clients come from a place of lived experience. Sherrie knows what her clients are going through because, chances are, she’s been there herself.
Sherrie joined CatholicCare Western Sydney and The Blue Mountains in 2018, starting work as a tutor with HIPPY Emerton, a home interaction-based education and parenting program for families. This year, she began a traineeship as an Aboriginal caseworker, with the Family Support Program. Sherrie will be a qualified Aboriginal caseworker by the end of 2022.
“My role is to help those who are struggling – whatever they’re facing,” Sherrie said. “It could be anything from helping people cope with mental health, navigate child custody issues, teaching parenting skills, or helping someone find their purpose in life. The number one thing I teach, however, is self-care. I help my clients understand how to support themselves so they can be strong for their loved ones. You can’t help others if you haven’t taken care of yourself first.”
Sherrie’s perspectives are shaped by her own life experiences. Listening to her story, we’re entrusted with memories of extreme hardship and heartbreaking loss, but also of immense faith and hope. Etched into her heart and tattooed on her skin, these experiences have shaped the person Sherrie is today, and the significant role she plays in the lives of others as a Family Support Worker.
A light in the dark – A sister’s love
“I grew up in a rough family. My mother had schizophrenia and my father was an alcoholic. I was partially deaf until I was 16. I didn’t know any better; I was happy. I had several operations over the years to restore my hearing and after my last operation at 16, I could hear again. Being partially deaf had affected my learning, but as a teenager, I taught myself to read and write for the first time.”
As Sherrie picked up a pen and paper, her sister, Sarah, was by her side.
“Sarah and I were really close. She was very smart and an incredibly spiritual person. Sarah helped me learn to read – we read the bible together eight times, scripture by scripture.”
Sherrie’s restored hearing gave her a new mechanism through which she could interpret the world. However, she discovered a reality she only wanted to withdraw from.
“Being able to hear took a toll on me. I wasn’t happy with how people voiced their opinions all the time. I didn’t want to listen anymore. It made me want to go back to being deaf. That’s why I consumed drugs and alcohol. I wanted to escape.”
Lost in a dark place, it was her sister’s shared words of scripture that presented the seeds of Sherrie’s faith in herself, and in God.
After leaving school, Sherrie and Sarah moved to Wagga Wagga to live with their grandmother. Then, in 2016, Sarah sadly became very ill with cancer and, tragically, passed away at the age of 32.
“My sister was everything to me, I was devastated. Sarah had helped me turn my life around. All throughout my beautiful sister’s life, she had been working to assist others. Her clients came up to me and said, ‘Sherrie, if it wasn’t for Sarah, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I would not have a family, a home or a nice car, if I had not listened to your beautiful sister.’ We would cry together and laugh together. It took a while before I realised that Sarah’s work was something I could do too.”
The journey on
In search of a fresh start after her sister’s passing, Sherrie moved to Sydney and found herself living in a women’s refuge in Penrith. Sherrie found permanent accommodation, but her struggles continued, until a moment that changed her life.
Around Christmas Eve, 2017, Sherrie lay in bed with her two young children, crying and praying. The small room contained her family’s only possessions: a mattress and an esky. In this moment of need, Sherrie clasped her hands together and prayed for the opportunity to help others; a chance to continue her sister’s work.
Sherrie lifted herself up and walked with her children to their local Holy Family Church. Sherrie noticed the Aboriginal CatholicCare Social Services Centre behind the church where she was collecting a Christmas hamper.
“A lady named Linda offered me another hamper; a Christmas hamper filled with toys. Linda offered an opportunity to work with HIPPY at Emerton. We got talking and she signed me up for a HIPPY Program, explaining to me there was an opportunity for some work with HIPPY Emerton. I couldn’t believe it; my prayers had been answered. I was overwhelmed with tears. This proved to me the strength of prayer.”
With every step that followed, Sherrie drew inspiration from her sister. However, she also discovered that she herself had the qualities needed to make a difference.
“My sister was amazing in what she did for the community. Sarah inspired me to follow this new path but I realised it was natural to me – I’ve been caring for people on the streets all my life without even realising it. I’ve had people in and out of my home, over the years. I’ve helped them overcome issues – come off drugs and alcohol or get their children back. They’ve become dear friends. They may not see me for two years, but if they were down and out, they know I’d be there for them.”
Sherrie says that joining CatholicCare Emerton was going to turn her life around. Sherrie draws a deep breath as she reflects on how her life has changed. Her heart is filled with gratitude for everything life has to offer.
“My faith in God and my prayers were answered by the opportunity to work with HIPPY. The worldwide HIPPY program has offered me training and a part-time permanent position through CatholicCare Western Sydney and The Blue Mountains.
“My faith in God and my prayers were answered by the opportunity to work with Catholic Care Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains. I’ve never in my life felt happier or more settled. Since joining HIPPY, I’ve become a passionate mother and partner. I appreciate every little gift because, realistically, we had nothing. Now, we have everything we could ever ask for – and more. It’s the first time I’ve recognised that I have a gift to support others. I have a clean slate where I can help others to understand how to make changes. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Sherrie has a lot of love and respect for her managers, who she says believed in her when she was struggling to have faith in herself.
“I have incredible bosses; Linda McDonald and now Linda Davis. They are amazing. They work so hard to ensure people are happy and they’ve brought so much good out of me. I would not have coped without their understanding and patience. It means the world to have someone to support you. In one year, I feel I have become a completely different person. I have seen myself succeed – and I want to see others succeed too.”
As our conversation draws to a close, Sherrie shares some final thoughts about the many lessons life has thrown her way over the years.
“I wish I could cut myself into a thousand little pieces and be there for everyone. I understand why people are the way they are. I have lived in those dark places myself. Sometimes, clients want to fight with me. I say, ‘I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover. The only thing I’ll fight for is to help you move forward.’ And they get it. They feel this from me.”
This article was originally featured in the Spring 2020 Edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine.