It’s the quality that I imagine Santa Claus has. Or JFK. My grandfather had a touch of it.
It’s inscrutable, a mix of do-gooder charisma and an easy, honest charm for every single person he meets. No motive. No ego. The type of person who simply rolls up his sleeves and does what needs doing.
Canton Chief of Police Bruce Lawver calls it “the real thing.”
And that’s probably the best description of our 2018 Person of the Year, Officer LaMar Sharpe. The real thing.
I first encountered “the real thing” sitting outside of Carpe Diem Coffee Shop, the meeting spot for our interview, where Officer Sharpe paused every few minutes to greet passersby. The UPS guy, telling him to keep up the good work. A woman who works in the building, asking him to please, please come to her daughter’s school.
“ … Well, tell them to invite me, and I’ll be there!” he told her while handing over his business card, which doubles as a (highly) collectible trading card.
What I had told him weeks before when I invited him for coffee was that I was doing an article in About on the Be A Better Me Foundation and his good work.
But what I didn’t tell him until we finally sat down together and I cracked open my laptop was that he was unanimously chosen as About’s Person of the Year.
He was genuinely shocked. And I’ll go out on a limb and guess that he’ll be the only one.
A 17-year veteran with the Canton Police Department, Officer Sharpe and his wife, Deidra, founded Be A Better Me as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation in 2016. Their goal an admirable one: Mentor young people, empower youth and strengthen relations between the community and the police force in Canton. Essentially a continuation of the work Officer Sharpe does in his role with the Canton Police Department.
Sharpe has become renowned in the community for his special brand of #communitypolicing—a practice where police work directly with the community to forge partnerships with residents. The novel idea that together they can develop proactive problem-solving solutions for crime and violence.
But it wasn’t until my trip to Canton’s Belden Leadership School for the issue’s photo shoot that I realized the true magnitude of Officer Sharpe’s celebrity—or the extent to which he has made a difference in the lives of our neighbors.
It was like The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” As the third-graders streamed into the classroom, all decked out in Be A Better Me tees, the chatter died off immediately and a sense of awe descended—seconds before they made a raucous beeline for him, cheering, “Officer Sharpe! Officer Sharpe!” absolutely delighted that he was there for another visit. He took selfies with them, mugging for the camera. He danced as they sang a holiday song they had been practicing. One little girl burst into tears when she thought she was getting cut out of the photo (don’t worry, she made it in). They even taped his business cards to their chests as makeshift badges, and when it was time to say goodbye, a few clung to him and made him promise to visit again soon.
While we were at the school, a teacher from a nearby fourth-grade classroom showed me a video her students made the previous year, a song for police appreciation day, which consisted of chorus after chorus of cheers for the Canton Police Department and Officer Sharpe, thanking the police for all their work.
“They just love him. You can’t pretend that. It’s just a gift,” Sharpe’s wife, Deidra, explained. “Two weeks ago at the movies, he’s not even in uniform and five people came up to him at least. We’re getting our popcorn, and ‘Hey, LaMar!’ a 12-year-old boy shouts at him, starstruck. In our seats and little girls come running over, asking ‘Are you Officer Sharpe? We love you! You’re awesome! Will you come to North Canton?’ and LaMar is like, ‘add it to the list.’
“LaMar is a kid. I think the kids see that in him. They know.”
But for all the excitement his visits create, for all the “Sharpemania,” for all the dream publicity he generates for the police and officers in Stark County, doing his part to turn the tide of resentment and distrust, that’s only one half the equation for Be A Better Me.
Be A Better Me was a long time in the making.
“I wanted to start the foundation as far back as 17 years ago. I kept telling myself, ‘You’ll get to it; it will happen,’ but then you get busy with your family, this, that and the other,” Officer Sharpe said.
“More and more, there’s a lot of backlash between the police and the community. There’s distrust. There have been times I have been afraid for my life … there are officers going on calls and getting shot. Something needed to be done to mend the relationship between police and residents here, and I didn’t know how to go about it other than to just get started.”
He did just that, starting small, doing little things such as bringing along bags of candy and stuffed animals when he was out on domestic violence calls. But that was just the beginning. Sharpe and wife Deidra and their board filed bylaws for the Be A Better Me Foundation in July of 2016 and have been off and running since. But as with all service initiatives, it seems that each year the need grows and grows.
In 2016, the foundation gave out 500 book bags filled with school supplies at the Back to School Lot Party. This year, it was 700. In October, the foundation gave out more than 400 Halloween costumes in partnership with the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV). And it also will top last year’s number of toys given out through the Stuff the Cruiser Toy Drive, providing Christmas gifts in the form of new toys, games and puzzles to children ages 6 to 15.
The foundation services families from Canton, Massillon, Alliance, Canton South, East Canton and up into Akron, with more coming all the time. Sharpe credits social media for helping the foundation to get the word out (his public profile has more than 7,000 fans, and the foundation has 1,500). He posts videos and photos almost daily to drive traffic and interest in the initiative.
“I think people honestly see the Facebook posts and think, ‘Well, he wants to help and I need help, so here I am.’ ”
When you lead a grassroots effort in a community, when you gain the trust of those you serve, you understand fundamentally what they need most. For Sharpe, the needs of this community always are changing, and that means something new on the horizon for Be A Better Me. This year, it was offering hot meals to those in need. Every other Wednesday, the Sharpes and a rotating group of board members and volunteers gather warm clothing, hand warmers, sleeping bags and other cold-weather gear and offer it to those in need, along with meals on Market Square in downtown Canton. Upcoming dates include December 27, January 10 and 24.
But the cornerstone of the foundation, his “baby,” is the Young Boys to Young Men Mentoring Academy, an eight-week mentorship course for boys 10 to 16 years old that will launch in January.
“This program was the original goal of the foundation. We want to get kids out of T-shirts and jeans, have them dress for success, to learn how to tie ties,” he said.
But the mentorship academy goes far beyond dress code. The estimated 30 participants of the first academy will be empowered by coming face to face with crucial leadership skills by way of local leaders. They will meet professional male role models—Canton Mayor Thomas Bernabei, Stan Barnes, CEO of CSE Federal Credit Union; an airline pilot and of course, Officer Sharpe himself, among others—all on hand to teach these kids about various careers, etiquette, financial responsibility and healthy relationship skills, along with team-building activities. At the end of the day, Officer Sharpe’s goal is to prepare them to be successful young men, to be good stewards of our community.
“A lot of these boys want to be stars of the NFL or NBA. And it’s OK to have that dream, but I want to ask them, ‘What’s your backup? You can shoot for that, but what are you going to do if your first dream doesn’t work out?’ ” Sharpe explained.
The week of Valentine’s Day, the foundation will bring in a professional chef so that the boys can learn how to cook a meal, one they will serve to their parents that evening.
“The first meal I ever cooked? Stir-fry steak and rice. I was so proud. My mom ate it and looked at me like, ‘Wow!’ I felt so good, and to this day, I love to cook. Maybe one of these kids will find that love, will want to become a chef. We want these kids to find something or someone they can look up to.”
The academy also will include two speakers to talk to the kids about what it was like to have been in prison or in a gang.
“We bring them in to show them that, look, this is not the life you want. One speaker was locked up in prison for gang banging, and his child was killed on the streets while he was locked up. This age, these boys, that’s where it all can get lost, where the path falls by the wayside. There are kids out there that were so good when they were really young, and you wind up asking what happened to them.”
But when it comes to kids who are headed down the wrong path, his isn’t the “scared straight” approach you may be expecting. Instead, he takes troubled kids ages 10 to 17 and their parents on what he calls “Reality Tours,” a 45-minute visit to city jail. He takes the kids into a cell, asking them why they think they’re there.
“I talk. I don’t yell. And eventually, they are honest, admit to stealing or talking back to mom.
“We talk about respect. We talk about freedom. I tell them I want to see them be successful. I tell them I don’t want to have to arrest you or to call your parents and tell them you’re never coming home again.”
He leaves them in a cell and brings their parents back to have an emotional conversation through the bars.
“Somebody is crying, every single time. My eyes get watery. My dad’s not here. I’d give everything to have my dad here today. My mom had a stroke five years ago, and I thought my whole life was going to end.”
He describes his own childhood: living through his parent’s divorce, when things took a turn for the worst. The family had the water and electric cut off. His mother was working two jobs and going to school.
“She did the best she could, but sometimes, the best you can isn’t the best. It isn’t enough. I know what it’s like. I see this exact situation every day, where people are working hard, but it’s hard to hold a job and maintain your kids.”
“When I was starting out, I would ride in my cruiser and wave at people, and kids would flip me off. I’d think, ‘Where did you learn that?’ But growing up, I guess I learned from my friends that same mentality, ‘F’ the police. It’s rough.”
He describes coming onto the police force in Canton at a time when crack cocaine was the drug du jour on many of his calls.
“Being a black police officer, my experience is a little different—actually, a lot different. We were making a lot of arrests in the neighborhoods, and people look at you and think you’re a sellout. No one would talk to me because I have this uniform on.”
Canton Police Chief Bruce Lawver seconds that thought.
“It’s so hard today especially in these last few years, the perception of the police. We’re almost foreign in people’s eyes, but we are brothers, and sisters, and cousins and spouses. We’re part of the community, like anyone else. And we are privileged to get paid for what is ultimately everyone’s responsibility,” explained Chief Lawver.
Today, his work is further compounded by the opioid and heroin epidemic in Stark County.
“If you don’t think what the kids see at home affects them, you’re insane. I saw a lady do the Narcan in front of her daughter. I see that little girl today, and she’s had her issues.”
He has so many stories like that one, and there are so many kids who need saving, whose lives could have turned out differently, better, if they’d had that someone to look up to or something to aspire to. And that is the heart and soul of Be A Better Me, and by extension, the heart and soul of LaMar Sharpe.
That’s the real thing.
WHAT’S TO COME
Deidra Sharpe first encountered her future husband her first day at a new job in September 2012 at CSE Federal Credit Union, where she is currently a loan officer.
“He was security, and he’s be-bopping around, being LaMar. I’m not paying attention. I’m focused on my new job, and then it was just like we had chemistry. In an instant. Once we started talking, we never stopped.”
Today, the Sharpes have a blended family of nine children with all but three grown and out of the house—though Sharpe jokes that sometimes they come back—and balancing his position with the Canton PD, his extended work in the community and now the foundation, there are times where he will go weeks without any time off.
“There are times I do feel overwhelmed because I’ll miss things. I’ll see someone and they will tell me that they messaged me and I missed it,” said Sharpe. “Sometimes I get messages and by the time I see the message, it’s weeks later. I would have to be at my computer or phone all day to handle the volume.”
“You come home and he’s not done working … We never would have thought that this would grow so fast. We have been blessed with so many people wanting to volunteer and donate, and everything just kind of falls in place, falls in our laps,” explained Deidra.
“LaMar is always thinking ahead. It’s crazy because we’ll be home laying around, and he’ll say, ‘I want to get into mentoring,’ and bam! We’re mentoring! How did we get here so soon?!” Deidra said.
Moving forward, the Sharpes are united in their biggest goal—their own space for the foundation—with plenty of storage for the overwhelming number of donations that are coming in.
“It seems so far away, but I dream of a logo on the front door, our own little area. Right now, we have to pack everything and load it up and drive it to a storage unit,” explained Deidra.
The future they envision includes a computer lab, college kids on board to help tutor, even a vehicle to help transport kids whose parents work and can’t drive them.
But it’s no surprise that the builder of bridges, the “real thing” wants to make even more connections, partnering throughout the community to achieve his goals.
“I’m proud of my baby, my foundation. But if you’re not willing to partner and share credit to help people, you’re in it for the wrong reasons.”
THOUGHTS ON OFFICER SHARPE
I am so very proud that you are honoring LaMar as your Person of the Year. He is an exceptional police officer and citizen extraordinaire! Both his work on duty and his after-hours work in the community are so very important to maintaining and improving relations between our police officers and the Canton community, particularly youth in the African American community. His mentoring, his Be a Better Me Foundation, his clothing and backpack activities speak for themselves. And I want to emphasize: We have many officers who commit themselves similarly, both on and off duty. But LaMar has taken it to the next level. I thank him, and I thank you for honoring him!
CHIEF BRUCE LAWVER
CANTON POLICE DEPARTMENT
I’ve known him since he came on the job and have always liked LaMar from the beginning. I think it’s always important for me to create an atmosphere where someone can succeed. And he is really putting himself out there, especially with community policing. He’s doing it right. He’s been effective. Most people don’t understand how much work and time he’s putting in and that the hardest thing he’s had to learn is to say no, but he’s balancing it quite well. We’re proud of him internally and externally. The things he does? True passion. He’s the real thing. He truly is. And it really comes from the right internal sources. He’s a great part of our community who happens to be police.
WIFE & BE A BETTER ME CO-FOUNDER
… There are days when you’re cleaning the house and your husband walks in on you and scares you to death and puts a video of it on social media. You haven’t even run a brush through your hair, and there you are on the internet. He’s planning to do a “12 Scary Days of Christmas” series of videos where he scares me every day. And I’m like a stew on simmer, I’m going to get him back.
But my favorite thing about LaMar? He is genuinely cool, laid-back, all the time. You think there’s gotta be another side to him? No, he’s literally that way all the time. He’s a character. He is so easy to get along with and legitimately will make your day better. Always. That’s my favorite thing about him. More than anything, I am proud of what he represents for our family and our community. He’s an example of what society needs right now.
OFFICER SHARPE’S HONORS & AWARDS
2016 Mayor’s Proclamation Award
2016 Coming Together Stark County Public Service Award
2017 Canton Police officer of the month for August
2017 Canton Police Patrolmen’s Association Police Officer of The Year
2017 Knights of Columbus Blue Coat Officer of the Year
2017 Gedatsukai “Outstanding Contribution to Community Service” Fitzgerald Law Enforcement Award
Sylvania “Be The Light’ Top 50 in the Country award winner
Canton City School District “Rising Star Award”
2017 Victims’ Rights Coalition “Dawn Marie Hendershot Award”
ABOUT THE FOUNDATION
The Be A Better Me foundation is a 501(c)(3) community-based foundation designed to help empower and encourage youth, on and off the right path in life, to see the good in themselves and others. Too many kids these days do not have positive role models and influences in their everyday lives. The organization’s goal is to provide hope and influence in our next generation to prove to them that they can make an impact in their lives, families and community. The foundation also works to strengthen the relationship between police and the community.
The first of what will become a series of academies will take place from January 8 through February 26, every Monday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Christ Presbyterian Church of Canton (530 Tuscarawas St. W). The deadline to apply is December 30, and registration is $60, which includes a book bag, supplies and a meal after each session. Registration forms are available to complete online at www.beabetterme.org. A sister academy for girls is in development and planned for next year.