Story and photo by Lori Gottula
There’s an old saying that goes like this: Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.
That quote has always been at the back of Sherry Huddleston’s mind. But now that she’s the family development associate for Southeast Nebraska Community Action Partnership, it’s at the forefront of every business day as well. Most of the people who walk through Sherry’s door at SENCA are struggling in some way. She understands what they’re going through, too, because she has been there, done that. She has walked a mile in nearly everyone’s shoes, and like many of her clients, has earned her education through the school of hard knocks. An education that began 52 years ago.
Sherry was born and raised in Falls City, the daughter of Leroy and Ruth Hayes. When her parents split up, her mom moved to Hiawatha, but Sherry stayed in Falls City with her dad, so she could grow up with her friends. Life after her parents’ divorce was difficult, though. The family didn’t have a lot of money, or much of anything else, so Sherry and her siblings were bullied a lot.
“Because of the bullying, I always felt like I was ‘less than’ the other kids,” Sherry said, during a recent interview. “I gravitated toward friends who also felt out of place because I knew exactly what they were going through. That empathy made me more compassionate.”
Her compassionate side, though, led to relationships that weren’t good for her. She and her friends began skipping school as freshmen. At age 16, she dropped out of high school.
Her dad told her if she wasn’t going to school, then she had to find work, so between the ages of 16 and 22, she held a variety of jobs. She also had relationships with a few men who were bad for her. One was physically abusive, and another was extremely controlling. But Sherry sought their love because she still felt “less than” the other women with whom she associated.
When she turned 23, she became pregnant with her first child. She wanted to provide more opportunities for her baby than she had had, but knew she couldn’t do so without a high school diploma. A few weeks after her daughter Cassandra was born, Sherry earned her GED.
When Cassie was two, Sherry started cosmetology school. While there, she had her second daughter, Kelsey, who made Sherry’s self-improvement goals even more important. A cosmetology license meant a better life for her and her girls. After graduation, she began working as a hair stylist in Table Rock, and stayed at that job for three years. A position opened up then at Golden Eagle Casino, and the pay and benefits were good, so Sherry took the job. Her professional life was looking up. Her private life, however, was frustrating. She loved being a mom to her two girls, but longed for a partner who would treat her like she deserved to be treated. She was also done with men who weren’t good role models for her daughters. In the year 2000, she started spending time with Ed Huddleston, the brother of her sister’s husband, Ronnie. He was a good man who worked hard. He had served in the army, and was a member of the national guard, so Sherry knew he was proud of his country. Besides that, he treated her well, and got along with her girls. Sherry and Ed dated for a year, then he popped the question. They married in 2001, and had twin boys, Dallas and Dakota, later that year. Sherry’s life was falling into place.
Then, in 2003, Ed’s national guard unit shipped out to Iraq. Sherry basically became a single parent once again—a single parent with four small children at home, and a husband who was serving in a war zone.
Because she wanted to be home for her children, she started a daycare in her house, and raised her kids while helping to care for other people’s. By the end of each work day, though, she was exhausted. But every evening, she pulled herself up by the bootstraps and started her second shift as mom and dad. She prepared dinner, helped with homework, spent time with the kids, bathed them, got them to bed, and then started all over again the next day. In her spare time, she volunteered for a variety of causes. Always the giver, she found joy in helping others. But constantly taking care of others took a toll on her emotionally and physically. As a result, she started packing on pounds. Eating became her emotional comforter.
Shortly after Ed returned home from his 13-month tour in Iraq, Sherry’s mother passed away. Sherry continued to comfort herself with food, and her weight issues made the grief even harder to bear, and the adjustment period after Ed’s return even more difficult.
“The Ed who walked through our door wasn’t the same one that had left 13 months prior,” Sherry said. Plus, she was different, too. Both people had been on their own for over a year, so they had trouble readjusting to married life. They knew that the only way they would survive was through counseling.
They started seeing individual counselors, and went to a marriage counselor together. In addition, they reached out the pastors of their church, NorthRidge Church in Falls City. NorthRidge became their sanctuary. God became the center of their family. The couple strengthened its bond and stuck together. For the next several years, Ed drove trucks and worked in manufacturing, and Sherry took a variety of jobs. She studied for and passed the test to be a tax advisor, so she worked seasonally as a tax preparer at H & R Block. She also volunteered in the church, and for several social service agencies, including SENCA. When the director, Melissa Feighner, was gone, Sherry answered the phones in the office. She also helped to plan events and stock the food pantry, and did anything else that the directors needed.
She became so familiar with the office and its programs that, in 2012, she volunteered to organize the annual Jingle Bell Ride. She had heard that SENCA was going to drop the project, which gathered new toys for needy children at Christmas time, and she couldn’t bear the thought. She asked the SENCA board if it would continue to sponsor the ride if she organized it. The board said yes.
Sherry took the project to NorthRidge Church, and the congregation there agreed to help as well. As a result, she and a group of volunteers on horseback and hayrack gathered hundreds of new toys for needy children. SENCA passed them out to 60 families shortly before Christmas. Sherry continued in that leadership role for five years, and the number of families that SENCA served increased to over 100. She stepped down from the project in 2017 and turned the event over to Tiffin Bauman.
“I just needed time to take care of myself,” Sherry said. “I was spending so much time working, taking care of my family, and volunteering that I had no time for myself. As a result, I gained so much weight that I could barely walk from the house to my van. It took me 30 minutes to recover before I could drive anywhere. I had grandkids by that time, and knew I had to make changes or I wasn’t going to be here to watch them grow up.”
As she has done with most situations in her life, Sherry tackled her weight issues with vigor. She had gastric bypass surgery, and when she recovered, started working out at a local gym, and watching her calorie intake. As a result, she has lost 195 pounds, and serves as an inspiration for many who think they’re too old, sick, or out of shape to start workout programs.
“I have 50 pounds to go to reach my goal weight,” she said. The weight loss has made her feel more confident and in control, so when the position at SENCA opened up, she applied and was hired. “I’ve been working since I was 16, and I’ve been helping people all my life,” she said. “Now I have a job that pays me to do it. It’s my dream job, for sure.”
Now, she can help families who are short on rent money or can’t pay their utilities. SENCA has programs that deal with both. She can help when a family’s children are hungry and there are no groceries in the house. SENCA’s food pantry holds non-perishable items like boxed dinners, and canned vegetables and fruit, plus emergency items like toothpaste, toilet paper, and diapers.
“Actually,” Sherry said, “We need more of everything for the food pantry, so if people want to donate, they can bring their items to Suite 101 in the courthouse. I’d also like to find a refrigerator and new freezer so we could offer fresh vegetables and more frozen meats.”
In addition to the food pantry, SENCA offers programs for first-time home buyers and classes that teach families how to be responsible bill-payers. All contacts at SENCA are confidential, and all services are provided without prejudice. However, they’re not provided without responsibility. “We don’t judge anyone who needs a hand up,” Sherry said. “But we don’t believe in hand-outs either. Our whole purpose is to help couples avoid future financial difficulties, so we require that each household has some form of income, and that each person or couple attend monthly budget meetings with us.”
Sherry also helps people connect with other resources, such as educational opportunities, so they can increase their earning potential. “For an individual to earn a living wage, he has to continually learn new things,” Sherry said. “SENCA and I will do everything we can to help people do that, but they must also invest time in themselves.”
Invest. That’s truly what it’s all about. The bottom line is that SENCA is there to invest in families that are struggling. And that means Sherry is there to help, too. It doesn’t matter if the household is single-parent or two-parent. It doesn’t matter if the parents are employed or on disability. It doesn’t matter if they’ve had alcohol or drug issues, or have recently suffered debilitating losses. It doesn’t matter if they wear cowboy boots, muck boots, dress shoes, tennis shoes, high heels or flip-flops. Hardship is hardship, and need is need. And Sherry Huddleston has been there, done that. She will treat people with dignity and leave judgment at the door when those in need walk in, because she really has walked in mile in their shoes.