Upon his return from a Kwanzaa festival in December of 1994, Malchijah Charles suddenly fell ill. He began suffering from seizures, slipped into a coma, and never recovered.
After losing her son to meningitis in 1995, Sharon “Ife” Charles was devastated and felt lost. “I felt as though my world had come to an end because the one thing I was sure I had done right in my life was having my son. Because of the kind of spirit that he had. When Malchijah died, the human part of me left. I focused everything on what it was to be a mom and dismissed what it was to be a woman, an individual, and so I lost me.”
In the aftermath of Malchijah’s death, Sharon Charles turned to the Yoruba faith and adopted the Orisa name “Ife”, which means love. This became a source of strength for her. “Ife became a name that stuck with me because each time I said it I was forced to say love.”
One of Malchijah’s teachers knew of Ife’s commitment to her community and encouraged her to join a mediation training workshop at the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, a unique neighborhood institution that works to improve community problem-solving, collaboration, and inter-group relations in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In October of 1999 Ife began working at the Mediation Center where she quickly established a reputation as a unifier, community confidant and mother figure to many of the neighborhood’s youth.
This raised the question, “How many young people call you mom?”
“I lost one son, but I have approximately 8 sons and nine daughters, plus an additionalÂ 12 or 13, plus about 30 kids who call me mom or Ms E. or Ms. C.”
“Malchiljah’s name means a messenger sent by God. If anyone had told me by losing my child I would have gained so many children I would have laughed at them.”
Fighting back the tears, Sharon explained, “At first I used to feel guilty about embracing another child, but I know because of who he is and the things he has done in my life that when I hold onto one of the other kids that I’m holding onto my own son. It’s difficult because I don’t get to smell his hair or see his smile, but I get to feel the love they give to me and I know that it’s part of the love my son has for me.”
When asked what her work has meant to her, Ife invokes the spirit of her chosen name, “I have love for where I live, love for the mediation center and for the folks that I work with – its a genuine love. There are times I get completely frustrated but I’d love to see this community work hand in hand. It’s something I want to see.”