ASBURY PARK - When you think of pageant winners you probably imagine tiaras, flowers and a whole lot of smiling.
But for Ms. Black New Jersey Sherrice Lyles, it is a vehicle to continue her charitable work as she inspires and uplifts young women in underserved communities.
Lyles won Ms. Black New Jersey USA in 2020, was crowned again in 2022, and will be competing in the Miss Black USA national pageant on Aug. 7 at the UDC Theater in Washington, D.C.
Miss Black USA is a nonprofit organization out of Maryland and is the largest scholarship pageant for women of color, awarding over $500,000 in scholarships. According to the organization, the pageant empowers women and celebrates their unique talents, traits and beauty.
Lyles grew up as a foster child. She lost her mother at a very young age, and bounced around different homes growing up, spending most of her time in Lakewood.
She moved back home with her father around the age of 14, however he was still dealing with his own substance abuse issues and would pass away himself.
"I lost my mom when I was 4 and then my dad passed away when I was 18," she said.
After graduating from Lakewood High School in 2006, she studied medical billing and coding, as well as computers/keyboarding and graduated from the University of Phoenix in 2010. She has been certified in nursing care for 14 years.
Lyles moved to Asbury Park 14 years ago, where she most recently worked as the parent liaison for Asbury Park school district’s Bradley Elementary School.
She described the position as helping the parents and teachers, such as by helping parents having difficulty with how to navigate the online portal or how things function within the schools. Other times it could be more serious.
"Sometimes there is conflict with the teachers and the parents, so sometimes the teachers may sense there is something going on at home and they don't feel too comfortable speaking to the parent about it. That is where I come in," Lyles said.
However, she won't be doing that in the coming school year, as the district, which as a policy does comment in public on personnel matters, has decided to eliminate her job.
"I had asked for like a raise, since I was juggling all the schools (during the pandemic) and I don't think that was heard, so now my position is being completely abolished," Lyles said.
She added that she has a lot of different opportunities, including other schools that have reached out to her. "So I have just been trying to weigh my options out," Lyles said.
Outside of the school district, she volunteers as an event coordinator for Charity Kings Inc. out of Asbury Park.
Charity Kings' program, Santa’s Toy Shoppe, assists families in need with holiday expenses, and runs a Back to School Giveaway which provides all types of school supplies and other necessities to families with children in need.
Lyles is the face of their Wish Upon a Prom program, which assists over 900 girls from all over the state with their prom attire.
"Our Wish Upon a Prom event is really big. Different schools come from all over and they receive prom dresses, different accessories and stuff. I've worked on different pageant queens and different pageant directors and they suggested that I start doing pageants," Lyles said.
Her first pageant came when she was 16, after a talent scout found her at the local mall and told her father that she would be a good fit.
"It was just like a small pageant that I did, and I didn't make it to the finals, so I kind of gave up. I was a teen mom as well, so I concentrated on my children and my education," Lyles said.
When she was working with Wish Upon A Prom, she built relationships with pageant queens and their mothers.
"So they basically told me I do so much for the community and they had seen me basically dress up one day. I put the prom dress on for the Wish Upon A Prom and they gave me the idea I should really start competing for pageants," Lyles said.
She sat down and wrote a list of goals that included a different career and trying out for a pageant "because that was something I really wanted to do growing up," Lyles said.
When Lyles is not winning pageants, she is dedicated to facilitating self-esteem enhancement programs meant to uplift, educate and motivate girls and young women.
The title means a lot to her, she said, as it gives her a voice within her community.
"With the pageant title I feel like I can help and assist more. My platform is suicide awareness and crisis intervention for teens. So with my pageant title I've been able to help more in my community," Lyles said.
Currently, she is working to start her own nonprofit organization, Queens of Heart Foundation, which will focus on helping young women and teens in the greater Asbury Park area all the way to Atlantic City.
"(We need) more mentoring and advocacy for teens, foster children as well. I have been working with different foster homes and group homes," Lyles said. "I feel like I can have more of a connection with these type of teens because once they know my story they open up a little bit more."
She is also working to get a crisis/text hotline off the ground.
"It has been so difficult to find sponsorship in our area. I reached out to like every political person in New Jersey and only Senator Vin Gopal helped with my campaign," Lyles said, referring to the Democrat who represents part of Monmouth County in the state Senate.
She added she is at standstill in regards to sponsorships.
"Because I have reached out to everyone. Everyone knows who I am, they know exactly what I do in the community. But I am not sure if it is because it is a Black pageant or its because everyone is just going through something right now but I feel like my voice is not being heard," Lyles said.
If she wins Miss Black USA in August, she plans to use the scholarship to further build and advance her career in nonprofits.
"Basically with the charity work, I had to teach myself, like, everything," Lyles said.
Over the year she has gained experience in charity work, such as applying for different donations and grants.
"I have a passion for this and it really helps and it works any time that I try to do it, so I really want to go back to school to really polish it up a little more," Lyles said.
To contribute to her efforts, use https://venmo.com/Sherrice-Lyles.
Charles Daye is the metro reporter for Asbury Park and Neptune, with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. @CharlesDayeAPP Contact him: CDaye@gannettnj.com
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Ms. Black New Jersey: From foster homes to pageant runways