Photo credit: Sam Maller
After being diagnosed with cancer at just 20 years old, Spelman College graduate Sharlee Jeter used the health scare as fuel to keep going.
In her latest book, “The Stuff: Unlock Your Power To Overcome Challenges, Soar, and Succeed,” Jeter opens up about her experience with beating cancer in 2000 as a senior in college. She explains to Because of Them We Can that rather than quitting school, she made an agreement with her parents to travel back and forth from Atlanta to her doctor in New York to receive treatment. After seven months, Jeter was declared cancer-free and was able to graduate on time with her math degree.
Though she didn’t believe she had done anything out of the norm, Jeter says it was her friend and now co-author, Dr. Sampson Davis, who convinced her to turn her experience into a book where she speaks to other people who have also overcome major obstacles.
“He was like, ‘You’re nuts,’” she says Dr. Davis told her after telling him her story. “It takes a lot for somebody to have that mentality where they’re like ‘I got cancer. It’s okay. I’m just going to keep going. I don’t want to stop anything.”
After developing a level of curiosity about her own strength, Jeter says she was intrigued by Dr. Davis’s suggestion and wanted to know more about how they could turn the concept into a book.
“I didn’t believe that I had anything special,” she says. “And if I did have something special, then I wanted to know what it was because I wanted to teach my son and the kids in my foundation.”
After interviewing more than 200 people about how they deal with major obstacles in life, Jeter published her book alongside Dr. Davis in 2018. In the book, the duo highlights 11 of the most common attributes people carry with them when overcoming a challenge.
“We talked to men and women from every different race you can think of,” she says. “These are the human qualities and things that everybody has within them to overcome obstacles.”
Aside from her work as an author, Jeter also serves as a philanthropist and is the president of Turn 2 Foundation, a foundation which was started by her baseball legend brother, Derek Jeter, and father in 1996. Through her work with the organization, she helps youth in her hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, New York and Tampa, Florida to foster leadership development skills, improve their academic achievements, and live a healthy lifestyle that leads to creating social change.
For 12 years straight, Sharlee has helped 100% of the students who participate in the Jeter’s Leaders program, which takes place in New York and Michigan, to attend college. She’s also worked to provide financial assistance to those students through the organization’s four endowed scholarships, including its United Negro Fund/Sharlee Jeter Turn 2 Foundation Scholarship, which is awarded each year to a student attending a Historically Black College or University.
“The idea behind the Jeter’s Leaders program was wanting to make sure that we have role models within the community that younger people can look up to,” she says. “So that the kid next door who is going off to college can maybe see themselves in that person and emulate that person more.”
Sharlee continues by explaining that roughly 40 students in New York and Michigan participate in the program each year. The students, who start out in their ninth grade year, must maintain a 3.0 GPA or above throughout all of their high school years in order to stay in the four year program, which includes intense leadership development training, service projects, and mentorship opportunities.
Every other year, she says, the 80 students come together to put on a conference where they invite outside leadership groups from across the country to attend. This year, Sharlee explains, the biannual conference will be held in Philadelphia.
“The whole idea of the conference is to have peer-to-peer learning so that the kids can listen to each other,” she says. “We know that young people always feel like us adults are dictating to them about what they’re going through. When in reality, I’ve learned a ton over the last few years just working with them because we didn’t deal with the same issues they deal with. I didn’t have social media in high school and so I have no idea what it’s like to go home and have bullying follow me home to my safe space.”
With suicide rates and gun violence impacting a larger portion of teens today, Sharlee emphasizes that putting on this biannual conference helps young people come together and think about the ways in which they can positively change their communities.
In addition to fostering academic excellence amongst its young leaders, Sharlee says that the Turn 2 Foundation also focuses a lot on mental health. In New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood the foundation has a program called “Turn to Us” where they discuss the many different mental health issues that are impacting young people today.
“My dad was a drug and alcohol abuse counselor by trade,” she says. “He ended his private practice to help start the foundation so that’s how the initial idea came up to really focus on healthy lifestyles and giving kids alternatives to doing drugs and drinking alcohol.”
Sharlee, who also serves as the vice president of strategy and development for Jeter Ventures, says she’s proud of the work the foundation has done and hopes that its impact will live through the kids forever.
“Being a part of a program like this, we hope the kids have found a new family, or you know, another sense of family support,” she says. “We also hope they realize how important it is to be a role model and to reach back to young people and help them out along the way and give them something positive to look at.”