Incredible, inspirational people are all around us, and in the heart of our community resides Denise Charles, a veteran who experienced domestic violence, trauma, and homelessness and now has helped thousands of people in similar situations. Denise’s inspiring story is one of resilience, personal growth, and an unwavering commitment to helping those in vulnerable situations get back on track to help themselves.
As we welcome November, the month of giving thanks and Veteran's Day, we had the privilege of delving into Denise's life, showcasing a path of struggles to triumph that highlights the true power of hope and giving back.
Denise was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and served in the United States Army for three years before being honorably discharged due to a disability. Her upbringing was challenging as her single mother raised her alongside her two younger sisters. Her childhood was far from idyllic, and as a result, she freely admits to making some poor choices during her youth, going against the grain, and avoiding following home rules.
“I saw a lot as a kid. More than any child should. I’m not going to lie; I made several bad choices and didn’t care. I struggled in high school, started drinking to numb the trauma I experienced, and began hanging with the wrong crowd,” Denise shared.
High school was a difficult period for Denise. Coping with traumatic experiences and keeping company with those of negative influence led to a rift with her family, resulting in Denise’s mother putting her out with a black trash bag of personal property. Denise remembers the following words like it was yesterday: “Oh no. If I bought it, put it back.” She would then begin couch-surfing with friends and engaging in activities she would later regret.
However, life took a significant turn when she experienced the tragic loss of a friend — a turning point for Denise — she realized the need for change in her life. She aspired to pursue higher education, but finances quickly became a blocker. It was then that she made a life-altering decision — to join the military.
Denise described her decision to enlist as one of the best she ever made. The structured environment was challenging, especially for someone with her self-proclaimed ‘strong personality,’ but she persevered and thrived. Her time in the military provided her with discipline and direction, setting her on a path toward personal growth and self-discovery.
"Joining the Army was the best decision I could have ever made for myself ... I was able to maintain it and do it," Denise said proudly.
After completing her service, Denise returned home, only to find herself slipping back into old habits and patterns.
“I went back home, and I reverted back to the exact same person I was as a teenager,” she admitted.
During this time, Denise met the father of her children and began a family of her own. However, once again, life took an unexpected turn as she faced challenges in her relationship, leading to separation and relocation to California.
She worked tirelessly to provide for her children, enduring a grueling daily commute, determined to improve her situation, and striving to create a better future.
Denise eventually returned to school to become a surgical technician while also navigating the difficulties of her personal life, later facing a domestic violence situation that forced her to seek a temporary protective order and relocate once again. Throughout this period, Denise powered through with resilience. She applied for Section 8 housing, a vital lifeline, and volunteered at a homeless shelter as part of her responsibility while receiving state public assistance.
Denise's involvement at the homeless shelter quickly went beyond fulfilling her volunteer hours. She was deeply moved by an incident where a mother and her three children were turned away due to lack of space. This experience struck a chord with Denise, as it reminded her of her own journey of couch-surfing and the grace of having friends to rely on. Driven by her own experiences, Denise eventually became an employee at the shelter, working tirelessly to ensure that families in need found shelter.
Her life took an unexpected turn when she received a job offer from St. Jude's Ranch for Children, an opportunity that would change everything. She joined the organization as Program Manager at the Crossings location. Where she not only earned a salary but also lived on-site with her family and 15 homeless youth. Her role provided her with the opportunity to empower and support young people experiencing homelessness and adversity.
Since stepping into her role, Denise has served roughly 2,700 clients, with many of the current and former children at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children affectionately referring to her as 'Mama Bear.' Many of her clients consider her a second mother and have endearingly called her ‘Mom’ for years. Denise has dedicated her career to breaking generational poverty cycles and positively influencing underserved youth. She instills the importance of transitioning from mere survival to living a joyful life, encouraging her clients to embrace change and to challenge themselves to become their best selves. Using her experiences of joining the military, pursuing an education, and mastering financial skills, she emphasizes to her clients the importance of stepping outside one's comfort zone to chase personal and professional dreams and ambitions.
"I'm living, walking proof that if you get out of your own way and if you share with just one person, you never know what that person is going through and how that person could potentially help you," said Denise.” Hope and Determination pushed Denise to pursue school once again. She obtained her Bachelor’s in Management from the University of Phoenix in 2023, making her the first person in her family to graduate from College, and is currently working on her Master’s in Business Administration.
Denise has been with the charity for more than a decade and gained professional guidance from her colleagues and leadership at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children. She was promoted to Program Director of Housing and Support Services, using her experiences to connect with and guide young individuals facing similar challenges. Her impact on their lives has been immeasurable, and she views her role as a two-way street, where she learns as much from the young people as they do from her.
Today, Denise dedicates the majority of her career in hopes that sharing her journey from adversity to empowerment showcases the transformative power of resilience and commitment to one’s own success, making a positive impact on the lives of her clients and those with similar hardships.
Homelessness, victimization, and self-doubt is an experience, not an identity.
Joining the Army was the best decision I could have ever made for myself.