Southern Roots: Sela Ward

“So many of us have moved away from the modest place that was too small to hold our dreams, too quiet for the noise we were born to make. Yet for all the success we may have found in the big city (or sprawling suburb), we are discovering there is a cost.”

So wrote actress and Meridian native Sela Ward in her memoir Homesick.

Born in Mississippi, Ward had a quintessential Southern childhood with cane-pole fishing, sweet tea and swimming in the black waters of Mississippi lakes and creeks. She was a Southern girl, through and through, with Tide football on Saturday night and church the next morning.

Austin kissing Sela

But it wasn’t until she had moved to Los Angeles, developed her career and started a family of her own that she realized she was missing an important link in her life.

“I felt a need for a sense of community,” she said.

She had found success through roles such as Teddy Reed in the early ’90s television series Sisters, and as Lily Manning in another series Once and Again, winning Emmy Awards for both roles. But in the fast-paced and competitive world of acting in L.A., she realized she lacked the close-knit support and warmth of her family and hometown.

And so began a journey home for Ward, a journey back to the place she once thought she had to leave behind.

Soon after she married her husband of over 22 years, Howard Sherman, they began looking for property near Meridian and bought a 500-acre tract called Honeysuckle Farm. With the possibility of children, she knew she had to connect them to her Southern roots and her family.

For 20 years, they’ve spent summers and holidays on their Mississippi retreat, bringing their two children, cousins and friends along.

Hope Village Sela and kids interior

Although her parents are now deceased, Ward continues the traditions that have grown out of the family’s Southern farmland. One of the most elaborate being their annual scavenger hunt.

Ward’s voice lights up as she describes the weekends filled with barn dances, hay rides and a grand scavenger hunt at Honeysuckle Farm. Each year, her husband writes the clues; they increase in complexity every year, she said, laughing.

Ward said she had to make sure her children experienced the joys of living in Mississippi, where the earth is close and nature nurtures.

“It was really important to me for (my children) to know that piece of me, that’s such a big part of me…that Southern culture,” she said

Although growing up she loved her family and loved her simple, sweet Southern childhood, Ward has said she felt she lived in a small box with a giant world just outside. Her father had been in the Navy, and stories from his worldwide travels cropped up in conversations around the house.

Sela and Family formal 9460

It was through many of these conversations she dreamed of a bigger universe, she said. And after studying art and advertising at the University of Alabama, she moved to New York City.

She was planning to become a flight attendant, but when someone offered her a job drawing storyboards for an audio-visual production company, she took it. (Good thing she did, because she is now deathly afraid of flying!) A friend then suggested she try modeling to supplement her income, and before long she had modeled for companies such as Maybelline and Vidal Sassoon.

She began taking acting classes to help her modeling and fell in love with the art. She decided that if she really wanted to pursue her new-found passion, she should move to California. So with an agent lined up, she moved to Hollywood in 1983 and landed a role in the Blake Edwards movie “The Man Who Loved Women.”

Through the years, she has played in both television and film, most recently as Stacy Warner on the medial drama House, and detective Jo Danville on CSI: NY. And although her roles have changed, one thing that remains constant is her Southern roots, which despite having grown up in L.A., seem just as strong in her children.

Austin Sherman is now 18 and away at college in Pennsylvania, but he has been to Meridian every year of his life.

Sela as teenager

“When I was born, my parents called the doctor and asked, ‘When is the soonest this boy can fly?’” Sherman said. “However many weeks or months later it was, I was on the next plane down to Meridian.”

Each summer, he would bring friends to Mississippi where they’d paddle boat, ride 4-wheelers and eat at the local Cracker Barrel.

But it was more than just good ol’ fun and Southern food, he said.

It’s easy to be sucked into the superficiality and materialism is so common in many of the lifestyles in L.A., he said. But Mississippi has grounded him; the South’s culture and his mom’s constant preaching of her Southern values ensured that he knew it was family and treating all people with respect and kindness that is most important.

In fact, for over 10 years, the Ward/Sherman family has put these values to practical use in a children’s shelter home in Meridian called Hope Village for Children.

It all began when Ward met two foster brothers at the East Mississippi Children’s Shelter, also known as the Peavey House, executive director of Hope Village, Tina Aycock said. Ward had been bringing gifts to the children at the home for years. But when Ward found two boys had been separated from their sisters because of the limitations of the foster care system, she was heartbroken.

In response, she and her husband, Howard, helped organize, raise funds and open another shelter with the mission of keeping siblings together and giving children a place of permanency and support in an oftentimes transient life.

The shelter has five cottages that can house as many as 40 boys and girls from birth to 18, on a long-term basis if needed, too. Through the years, both Ward and her husband and the community of Meridian have given time and money to help fund Hope Village.

Unlike many shelters, Hope acts much like a family to these children by paying for music lessons or sports, being their home when they go to college or when they “age out” of foster care and start working.

Sela young girl dancing

“We are unique, and we’re able to do that because of the community we live in,” Aycock said.

But everything they give the kids comes at a price. So in a celebration of over 10 years of service, Hope Village is hosting its first major fundraising drive since its opening in 2000.

On April 20, Hope will have a catered dinner with Ward, live auction and special entertainment at the MSU Riley Center. Bundles of eight dinner tickets are selling for either $10,000 or $5,000, with the larger donors invited to a pre-dinner “Meet and Greet” with the actress at the MSU Opera House.

“We won’t do this every year,” Aycock said. When there is a specific need, Hope Village usually just goes to the Meridian community. But the time has come when Hope Village needs a little extra help, she said, and the people of Meridian and Ward and Sherman can give only so much.

Actually, any donation amount is welcome, Ward said. There are so many children who need help and guidance, and Hope Village is giving them that.

Despite all of her achievements in life, Ward said she is most proud of Hope Village. In part, she sees it simply as a way to give back to and honor a community that gave her so much.

Since leaving at age 18, Ward has spent much of her journey coming home. And with the farm, her children’s affections and Hope Village all in Mississippi, her roots are here to stay.

Photos submitted // Story by Natalie Richardson

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