For weeks, the Votes for Women project has been telling stories about women in Nashville who are at the heart of what Nashville Public Library (NPL) does every day — and the issues, challenges, and opportunities they experience are at the core of the Votes for Women mission.
So, as we approach the 2020 opening of Votes for Women, we're taking time now to introduce you to women whose names you might not yet know ... but whose stories, insights, and accomplishments are worth discovering.
Not Taking it for Granted
Some people would say that we have failed as a democracy.
If you check out many online forums or social media threads, you’ll find plenty of disgruntled voices convinced that we don’t educate ourselves about the issues of today. Or that we default to supporting political candidates along party lines. Or, perhaps worst of all, that many people simply don’t seem to care about their right to vote.
No one would ever put Laronda Rochelle “Chelle” Waller in any of these groups. She doesn’t take the right to vote lightly at all.
After all — for many years, she wasn’t allowed to.
Found guilty of dealing illegal substances in 2006, Chelle looked at herself and saw a convicted felon, serving jail time and having her voting rights stripped away. It wasn’t until 2018 that she was able to restore her right to vote.
But now that she has it back, she’s determined to keep it. And – with the love and support of her family at Thistle Farms and her family at home – she’s making her life into something that she, and her loved ones, are proud of.
Tough Choices, and Tougher Consequences
“ … there were a lot of drugs in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Many of my family were dealers,” Chelle said. ”I’ve struggled with addictive behavior my whole life.”
When the beauty salon she owned was closed because she hadn’t filed the required commercial area paperwork, Chelle turned to dealing to pay the bills. Dealing turned into using, and soon, Chelle became a prostitute to support her habit.
Her life became a cycle of being arrested, landing in jail, and being released, just to start all over again. Even the birth of her son, DeVione (the first of three children), couldn’t keep Chelle from resisting her worst urges for long.
Things continued like that for some time, until Chelle found herself eight months pregnant with her second child, DeBria, and back in prison. When she was transferred to the hospital, and welcomed her daughter into the world, she did so in handcuffs.
That’s when Chelle knew it was time to do something. When she entered Thistle Farm’s Magdalene program, a two-year recovery course for women struggling with drug abuse and prostitution, it would be the first step on a journey that continues to this day.
A Family That’s Always There
In the Magdalene program, Chelle found a family – and hope for a better future – she didn’t even know could exist. She was surrounded by women just like her: addicted to drugs, turning to prostitution to make ends meet, and desperate for something better.
It was a group of people that offered everything Chelle was looking for.
“When you’re trying to get out of drugs and the life on the street, you need people to check on you and support you,” Chelle said. “Thistle was always checking. They never gave up on me.”
But that didn’t mean Chelle had it easy, or that she was always successful. After graduating from Magdalene in 2005, Chelle tried to go it on her own for a while. The result was that she reverted to using, dealing, and falling back in with the same crowd that enabled those habits.
While always unfortunate, a relapse for drug users isn’t uncommon. A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that between 40 and 60% of people using illicit substances experience a relapse.
For Chelle, things came to a head with her felony conviction in 2006, as well as the birth of her third child, DeVonte.
After she was released, as part of her parole, Chelle was ordered to attend meetings at Magdalene three times per week.
“I wanted to go back, but I was ashamed. I felt like I’d graduated from this program, then turned right around and thrown it all away,” Chelle said. “But the folks at Thistle, especially my supervisor, Holli, believed in me. They helped me come back and turn it around again.”
Learning from the Past; Forging the Future
After she returned to Thistle Farms, Chelle got clean, and remains so to this day. She became a permanent employee of Thistle Farms in 2009, and today, continues to thrive there as an accounting and administrative manager. In August 2019, she founded Chelle’s Place, where she helps women in tough situations overcome their struggles, with three sober living houses opened to date.
And in helping others, Chelle has found the calling that enables her to lead the life she wants.
“For a woman struggling with addiction, jumping back on with society is different. You crave a purpose, and you want to do good for the people looking at you,” Chelle said. “When I see these new women get their start at Thistle, I want to be a role model for them. Listening to them, you come to understand that we’re all just trying to be better.”
While quick to admit that her past is riddled with serious mistakes, Chelle also credits her experiences with honing the skills she needs to excel. Tough, intuitive, and unafraid of taking chances, Chelle said that “listening to her gut,” and the instincts that she developed from her hard life, have helped her survive.
The big difference now, she says, is that she isn’t alone. And it’s not about her anymore.
“You know, when I entered the program, they told me, ‘You can’t do this for your kids — do it for yourself.’ But my children are exactly why I got clean and stay clean,” Chelle said. “I want to watch them grow up, graduate from school (my daughter DeBria graduated from high school this year), and lead good lives. I want to be the kind of mother that they can be proud of.”
How Essential, Your Voice
Now 48 years old, Chelle has watched not only her own life evolve, but also the world around her. She’s seen women discover their voices, step up to lead groups and organizations, and shape a future that benefits everyone.
Having been unable to vote for years, Chelle is more committed than ever to making her voice heard in her community. Now, she realizes, it’s just not just a good idea — it’s essential.
To help us understand how critical the right to vote is for everyone, we asked Chelle these three questions.
What do you want to be different for the next generation of women?
I wish young women would listen more. The best piece of advice I can give them is this: your momma knows everything. I rebelled against everything my momma said, but she was right about all of it.
I also wish they had more opportunities to pursue their passions. I wish they weren’t shut down by stigmas so much. We all need each other. We are human.
What does the right to vote mean to you?
It’s a big deal. It didn’t mean much to me at 18, and I didn’t vote at all from the time I was 19 until I was 47, but it does now. I remember my history teacher talking about suffrage, and telling us, “That’s your voice.”
I tell everyone: educate yourself before you go to the ballot. There may be more going on than you realize.
What form of power do you not have that you wish you did?
I wish I could make people understand each other and treat each other equally. Some people have circumstances we can’t even begin to comprehend. I wish I could make a world where there are no judgements, no “less thans.”
(Author's Note: NPL presents facts as shared with us by those featured in our stories. While we make every effort to verify any information shared, these posts should be used for entertainment and reference only.)