The indelible legacy of the actress and the entrepreneur
Photography by MARIANNE TODD
For 26 years, Sela Ward and her husband Howard Sherman have come home to their country farm in Meridian. One Christmas in 1998, they decided to bring presents to The Peavey House, an emergency homeless shelter for children. While moved by the all the children’s stories, meeting two brothers and hearing of their history had an intense impact on Howard and Sela, who were raising two young children at the time. And while they may not have known it in that moment, the parents of Austin and Anabella had found a calling that would alter and inspire the rest of their lives.
“Their names were Jimmy and Michael, and they were 10 and 12,” Ward says. “Their parents’ rights had been terminated and their two other siblings were in different shelters across the state. There was no facility that could keep the kids together, and they were going to be separated even though all they had left in the world was each other. I’m one of four kids … the thought of ever being separated from them … I wouldn’t survive it. I was so upset, my heart burst open … I wanted to adopt these kids.”
For Ward, a Golden Globe and two-time Emmy winner who starred on Sisters and Once & Again and such films as The Fugitive and Gone Girl and Sherman, a businessman and entrepreneur currently running for the United States Senate, working a 16-hour day with 4-year-old Austin and 6-month-old Anabella wasn't an option. He heard the problem and suggested a solution: create a housing facility that was mandated to keep siblings together.
“That’s how Hope Village was born,” Ward says. “We organized as a nonprofit with a board of directors and started seeking funding and property.”
Hope Village opened in 2000 on 30 acres in the heart of Meridian at the former site of the Masonic Home for Children. Ward and Sherman, along with other local community leaders, raised more than $1 million to purchase the property. “I did a training video for Kentucky Fried Chicken, a ribbon-cutting at Target and speaking engagements for anyone willing to donate to our cause … I just did whatever I had to do,” Ward says.
“And she’s still doing it,” Sherman says. “Last week she went to Birmingham to speak at the Red Elephant Club to raise money for more cottages. She’s a brutal negotiator when she’s raising money for Hope Village.”
In the 18 years since its opening, Hope Village has served more than 3,000 children from across the state and employed hundreds of people. The organization provides mental health care and educational services to children living in different homes on the same campus, minimizing the trauma associated with movement and separation from loved ones.
“In the past this wasn’t done, and people said it couldn’t be done,” says Hope Village Executive Director Tina Aycock. “They said boys and girls on the same campus would not work. We wanted these kids to stay connected to the family that they had left. Our overall mission really is to stop the movement of children.”
Meridian has not been the only recipient of Ward's and Sherman's generosity. Following Katrina, the actress and her husband went to Oxford to be part of Mississippi Rising, an event to raise money for hurricane victims.
Back home, Ward's and Sherman’s community involvement reaches far beyond Hope Village, each of them participating in various local projects, such as the the recently-opened Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience (She was honorary chair of the board that began more than a decade ago and, along with former Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith, helped Meridian win the location as the coveted MAEEX site.), the renovation of the Meridian Opera House, and the purchase of Weidmann’s when the long-time owners retired and the oldest restaurant in Mississippi faced extinction.
“It had been family-owned for generations, and we didn’t want to see it go to a restaurant group and be turned into something nameless,” Ward says. “My goal was to preserve it. So, we got 60 families together and everyone invested $25,000 to purchase the building’.”
The couple also went to Washington, D.C. on four different occasions where Ward lobbied to secure funds to restore Meridian's opera house, and they both argued for policy changes and funding that would be necessary for Hope Village to thrive.
“All these things have a domino effect, and good begets good,” Sherman says. “If a restaurant closes in a major metropolitan city, it isn’t that big of a deal, but if Weidmann’s closes, you lose a central downtown gathering place. That’s really important in a close-knit communities like Meridian.”
Ward and Sherman spent half their time on the West Coast, where Sherman worked as an entrepreneur, starting more than 20 successful companies, while Ward built a career as an award-winning television and film actress. Most recently, she was filming in New Mexico, shooting two seasons of the Epix series Graves with Nick Nolte, which finished airing in late 2017.
When they married 26 years ago, Ward brought Sherman to Meridian and took him to a hill just outside of town. “What are we looking at?” he asked. “Our future home,” she said.
The couple moved to Meridian permanently in 2016, making it easier for the day to day hands-on oversite of Hope Village and their ever-evolving dream projects. “Sela's decided the place needs a little love, so now she’s off raising money for that,” Aycock says. “She wants things to be aesthetically pleasing for the kids. Children determine their worth based on the things they see around them. They want to feel valued, and this is their home.”
The project has not been without its travails. In 2016, state legislators separated Child Protective Services from the Department of Human Services, leading to a $40 million disruption in a federal matching program that funded a significant portion of childrens' homes and mental health services. Emergency legislative measures were needed to return CPS to DHS’s umbrella and restore funding. When Sherman heard about the loss of funding, he said he felt he had no choice but to act.
“That put me over the edge,” he says. “I had to run for office. I had a woman call me this morning and say she’s been separated from her son, and she can’t get in touch with her CPS case worker because they’re too busy to return peoples’ calls. That’s largely a result of this budgetary shortfall, because our legislators weren’t paying attention.”
Sherman announced his candidacy for United States Senate as a democrat earlier this year. His platform focuses on improving the state’s economic outlook through investments like medical technology and value added manufacturing. Instead of waiting for industry to save the state, Sherman suggests Mississippi create its own, and he has specific plans on how to do that.
Sherman also values the importance of state tourism and bringing the film industry back to Mississippi after incentives to make movies were cut earlier this year. He also has set his focus on childrens' education and health care to improve the state’s workforce and the well being of communities.
“A small part of me thinks we're crazy,” Ward says. “But, I really do believe that the more you’re given, the more you have to give back. Howard and I both believe that. This is where I came from and where we’ll be until we die, so this is where we want to contribute what we’ve learned.”
In May, Sherman and Ward attended the opening of the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience in downtown Meridian. The space highlights the many contributions of Mississippi’s artists around the world, something the couple sees as somewhat ironic given the state’s persistently low national rankings in terms of economic and quality of life prospects.
“So much artistic brilliance was born here; Eudora Welty, Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, Jim Henson, Elvis, B.B. King, my wife, the list goes on and on ... probably more artistic genius per capita than any other state, and then we’re No. 50 in everything else that matters,” Sherman says. “That’s something I find unacceptable.”
As Sherman prepares for his senate run, Ward, who will be at his side as an advocate for Mississippi, also continues to raise money for improvements to Hope Village. “I wish everybody could have a Howard and Sela,” Aycock says. “I just feel so blessed that they’ve decided to make helping children part of their mission in life and that they fight so hard for the rights of these kids.”