By Bob Meadows
November 22, 2004 12:00 PM

Tears of rage are streaming down Daphne’s face. She has just told two dozen women at the Mothers of Incarcerated Sons meeting in Orlando that all three of her boys are in jail. “My heart has been broken,” she sobs. “I’m angry at myself for letting this happen. I’m angry at my ex-husband for being too lenient. I’m angry at the boys for doing things they know are wrong. I guess I’m angry at everyone.” MIS founder Sherry Grace hugs Daphne (who didn’t want her last name used) close, as the other women nod. They have all been there. Grace whispers, “We want to help you. Tell us what you need.”

Hugs abound at MIS meetings, but so does hard work. Since Grace founded the support group on Mother’s Day 2001, the nonprofit organization has helped 1,300 moms in 23 states bear their burdens. It has persuaded wardens to move inmates closer to their families, lobbied legislators to reexamine mandatory minimum-sentencing guidelines; in the last year it helped find jobs for about 120 paroled inmates and provided services for 200 prisoners nationwide. Grace, who often visits prisons to give motivational lectures to inmates, has been lauded by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and dubbed one of Essence magazine’s 50 Most Inspiring African-Americans. “After [prisoners] have talked to Sherry Grace, they’re better behaved, they take better care of themselves,” says Carlyle Holder, the warden of Federal Corrections Complex in Coleman, Fla. “Sherry has no fear. She will speak to anyone about anything.”

It took a while to find her voice. For years the 50-year-old former model and interior designer lived a life of outward respectability—and inward shame. She had a loving husband in dentist Willie Lee, 55. They shared their comfortable four-bedroom home in the Orlando suburb of Longwood with four bright, beautiful children. “Friends would say, Wow, Sherry, you’re so lucky to have such a great life,'” Grace recalls.

Behind the facade, however, was trouble. “My sons were my dirty little secret. When people brought up my sons, I changed the subject,” says Grace. As teenagers, her oldest boys Andre and Avery began “running with the wrong crowd,” Grace says. In 1994 Andre, now 30, went to jail for a number of charges including grand theft auto, aggravated assault and carrying a concealed weapon. “I guess I wanted to prove to other kids I wasn’t just some stuck-up doctor’s kid,” Andre says now. Avery, 29, meanwhile, has been in and out of jail on a myriad of offenses including breaking and entering. Their constant trouble with the law left Grace dreading unexpected visitors. “The doorbell would ring, and I’d immediately drop to the ground, pretending no one was home,” she says. “If it was the police, I’d crawl to my sons’ rooms and tell them to hide under their beds. I didn’t want them to be carted off.”

In the spring of 2000, she decided to unburden herself, sharing her anguish with her church members, from whom she’d managed to keep her sons’ situation a secret. “I told them that my sons had broken the law and were in prison,” she says. “After I came clean, I felt better.” For weeks following her confession, women would come up to her and whisper, “‘My son is in prison too,'” Grace says. Realizing others need practical help—as well as catharsis—she began MIS. With her husband’s support, Grace has plunged about $35,000 of her family’s money into the organization, which is financed through donations and has a budget of $65,000. “You get so used to people saying ‘No’ when your son is in prison: ‘No,’ you can’t visit him, ‘No,’ they can’t move him closer. Sherry Grace says, ‘Yes,'” says MIS member Gloria Davis, a Kansas City, Mo., resident. By calling wardens and the Department of Corrections, Grace helped get her son Jeremy, serving life for two counts of first-degree murder, transferred to a prison nearer Davis’s home.

Grace is still waiting to bring her own son Avery home. He remains in a state hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., being treated for paranoid schizophrenia. But life is looking up. Her two youngest, Edmund, 22, and Angelina, 21, are doing well in college. And Andre has turned himself around. After being sentenced to two years of house arrest in 1998 for a drug offense, he went to college, got an associate’s degree in dental-laboratory technology and opened a dental lab in 2000. “I owe a lot of that to my mother, who never gave up on me. Here was a woman who was put through hell by my brother and me, and she reached out to people. It was an inspiring thing,” Andre says. Grace couldn’t have lived any other way. “People tend to think that someone is a failure when he goes to jail. That’s the wrong attitude,” she says. “Failure is temporary.”

Bob Meadows. Steve Helling in Longwood