The Story of Fouchéna Sheppard: Gullah Poet and SCSEP Participant
Fouchéna “Ché” Sheppard is a truly one-of-a-kind woman. Through performance arts, poetry, and now as Palmetto Goodwill’s Advocacy Coordinator for people with disabilities, she has made a lasting impact. A success story with a stellar career, life as she knew it completely changed after a devastating apartment fire. After several years of struggling, Palmetto Goodwill’s SCSEP program helped her gain her confidence back. When asked what brought her through, her answer gave us chills.
Hope. It is such a short word, but it is so powerful.”
If you were to look up the word inspiration, Fouchéna Sheppard matches every part of the definition. Sheppard, one of our Advocacy Coordinators and SCSEP (Senior Community Service Employment Program) participants, is the kind of person you are guaranteed to get lost in conversation with. Growing up with a rich Gullah background, she is a great keeper of history, award winning poet, storyteller, authentic dancer, public speaker, and we are proud to say – a member of the Palmetto Goodwill family. Featured in the Post and Courier, Technical College of the Lowcountry ‘In the News’, Tabor-Loris Tribune and more, she is not a stranger to seeing her story in print. We cannot wait to brag on her and share her story, but first we want to share the part we are so proud to play in it.
SCSEP Instills Hope
Sheppard’s career was flourishing until a life event completely knocked her down. When it seemed like there was nowhere to turn, our SCSEP program allowed her to get back on her feet again. The federal program allows participants, like Sheppard, to gain stipend on-the-job training through community service activities at non-profit and public facilities. The stipend ensures that participants can get to their training sites, where working hours fluctuate between 15-30 hours per week.
Local seniors may qualify for this program if they are 55 or older, unemployed, motivated to find employment, lack skills and/or education and fall into a low-income bracket. Complete the form here or call (843) 566-0072 to speak with a Goodwill team member and find out if you qualify.
Rooted in Gullah Culture
Sheppard grew up speaking a very unique language. For those who do not know about Gullah, it is the only distinctly African creole language in America, and is spoken along the coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida1. A rich history fading with each passing day, Sheppard is one of the few sparks keeping Gullah alive. Sadly, it was not always accepted. Native to Charleston, Sheppard was advised not to speak the West African language at school. For Fouchéna, Gullah was something strictly spoken at home with her mother and grandmother. It was kept hidden for “survival for the children and for down the line generations,” Fouchéna explained. It made both learning and life trickier, as she walked a fine line between keeping true to her cultural roots and speaking in a totally different language at school.
In addition to this, she faced battles with dyslexia, something that was not understood at the time. At home, she would read her grandmother the book of Psalms and the book of Proverbs front to back, even with her struggles, and this laid the foundation for her beautiful poems – she just did not know it yet.
A Booming Career
Before working in the arts, Fouchéna worked as an administrative aide at Martin Law Firm. It was not until she was “tricked into performing” her first show in 1985 at the Moja Arts Festival by a close friend that she fell in love with poetry and the arts. A silver lining, she only had a few hours to prepare but she did a poem in both English and Gullah, and crowds went wild.
“I used to record my shows,” she adds. “Everything came to me for the first time while I was doing it.”
At this point, Sheppard blossomed into her career as a performer. Her mother, just as talented, performed alongside her from age 87 until she was 91. Fouchéna’s performances were something people just could not get enough of. She brought life into a room – so much so that “people just could not believe anybody could be smiling all of the time,” especially with the well known challenges she faced.
Extreme Highs & Extreme Lows
When Fouchéna was in her late 60’s, her happy and successful life flipped upside down and she found herself with very little and nothing but five plastic bins of clothing belonging to her and her mother. As her apartment went up in flames, so did her savings, her mother’s and grandmothers’ valuable memorabilia, nearly all her possessions, and worst of all – her contagious smile.
Having to start all over was heart-wrenching. She faced extreme lows and did not know where to turn. She applied for jobs and was turned away because of her age. Because of this, she began to have feelings of self-doubt and low self-esteem. At a glance, by her spirit, smile, and positivity, and you would never know any of this.
She carries on with a refreshing empathy for others, and even when people were rude to her, she explained,
Love and hate cannot exist in the same spot at the same time, it just can’t.”
Finding a bright side in even the darkest of times, she is one of the most grateful people you will ever meet. “Fortunate for me that my mother gave me those bins, fortunate for me that I had the fire, it gave me a chance to really know myself again.” She exemplifies what it means to #DoGood, making us ecstatic that she found Palmetto Goodwill and our SCSEP program.
Our Mission Coming to Life
After a long three and a half years of searching for employment, in October 2019, she entered the SCSEP program at Palmetto Goodwill when she walked through the doors of our Career Opportunity Center. SCSEP has allowed her to fulfill her love for giving back, as she could do community service and receive stipend on-the-job training for it. She started the program and never looked back.
In September of 2020, she began working as a Palmetto Goodwill Advocacy Coordinator and hit the ground running. She adds passion to the mission, by reaching out and helping people who were once in her shoes. According to her, Palmetto Goodwill is the first company she has worked for where she is able to work from her heart.
“You can be on food stamps and qualify for courses. You can be on food stamps and be able to learn a career or get into a company where you have a good opportunity of being hired.” Helping people dream, she touched on, is what she loves the most about Palmetto Goodwill.
That is what all of us, who volunteer and work here, love as well. If we can help even one more person like Fouchéna, everything we do is worth it. From our community service headquarters to our warehouses and retail stores, everything comes full circle.
Our hearts are full knowing that not only have we been able to help someone through SCSEP, also have her on our team. While researching her life and speaking with her, I did not want our time together to end. Her final thoughts, in her words, were “there are no words to express what this company has done, and the company is the people that work for it.”
Be a part of the SCSEP program:
If you are/know of a local senior that may benefit from our SCSEP program like Fouchéna did, we encourage you to fill out our form here or call (843) 566-0072 to speak with a Goodwill team member and find out if you qualify. To us, there is no limit to helping people reach their goals.
Still curious on how to receive stipend on-the-job training? Watch the video below!