Face of Defense: Soldier Calls Army Home
By Bob Reinert
U.S. Army Garrison Natick
NATICK, Mass., March 7, 2012 Many soldiers have called the Army their home over the years. Few have meant it more than Army Staff Sgt. Sharalis Canales of the Natick Soldier Systems Center here.
Once homeless, Army Staff Sgt. Sharalis Canales often shares her story with young soldiers at Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass. U.S. Army photo by David Kamm
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
When Canales enlisted in late 2005, she had no home. She was living in a New York City shelter and facing an uncertain future.
"I didn't have a place to live," Canales recalled. "I went to the Covenant House, which is a shelter in Times Square, and I stayed there for six months."
Canales, 26, has come a long way in six years. She serves as training noncommissioned officer for the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment and as Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers president. Soon, she will represent the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command NCO of the Year competition.
"The Army has not failed me since I've been in," said Canales, who earned staff sergeant rank in five years. "The Army gives me everything that I need. This is my family."
None of this could have seemed possible to Canales at age 14, when her divorced mother gave her up to foster care. She was placed at the St. Cabrini Home in the Bronx.
"Mainly, the girls that lived there had just gotten out of juvenile detention hall and stuff like that, and I was there because my mom and I were having a lot of issues," Canales said. "My dad divorced my mom, and I started running away because my mom was being promiscuous."
The eldest of five children, Canales had a difficult time adjusting to the group home but got plenty of help.
"The staff members, they took care of me," Canales said. "They taught me everything that I know, and because of them, I am where I am now, and I'm very grateful for that. Despite all the negative stuff with the [other] girls, I always took it and turned it into something positive."
Canales graduated from Mother Cabrini High School and got a scholarship to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but her world got complicated again.
"I was having adjustment issues," Canales said. "I think there was probably only like 10 [minority students] on the campus. It was my first time being away from the group home. I felt like I didn't fit in."
After a year at Marist, Canales transferred home to Monroe College, did another year there and decided to join the Navy. At age 20, she signed herself out of the group home.
"I didn't make it through the Navy," Canales said. "So when I came back, I couldn't go back to the group home." She went to see an Army recruiter, who drove her to Covenant House, where she stayed until he got her paperwork in order.
"He was with me every step of the way for six months until I joined," Canales said. "I have been very fortunate to meet very, very good people that have helped me out throughout these years."
Army life required little adjustment for Canales, a 4-foot-8-inch survivor of years in a foster care group home.
"I learned a lot being there," Canales said of St. Cabrini. "I would tell you this -- that having that background experience definitely helped me, set me up for success, when I got in the Army."
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Warren has been impressed with Canales since she arrived at NSSC.
"She's made a very positive impression to many on this installation in just the short period she's been stationed here at NSSC," Warren said. "She looks to be challenged daily. She's physically fit, has the professional appearance we expect from our noncommissioned officers, and loves to teach and train."
While Canales has enjoyed plenty of success since joining the Army, she has done so without ever forgetting her teenage years. She shares her story with soldiers every chance she gets.
"I encourage the soldiers to do the right thing, and I tell them what the Army has done for me," she said. "I spend a lot of time with the soldiers and setting them up for success, and letting them know what they need to do to be successful in the Army. It's easy. You just need the tools, and you need to do it."
Canales is living proof. On the threshold of earning her associate’s degree from Central Texas College, she already has her sights set on a bachelor's degree. She also wants to win NCO of the Year and earn her Expert Field Medical Badge.
"I believe if you want to be successful and you want something in life," she said, "you have to go for it."
One of those things for Canales was finally getting her own place, which she did after transferring to Natick in November.
"I've always lived in a barracks, but because I'm an E-6, now [I] have to live off post," she said. "When I got here, I was like, 'I don't even know how to go apartment hunting.' I had no clue, whatsoever."
But logistics aside, Canales might never want for a home again.
"I plan on staying in the Army, making it a career," Canales said. "The Army's been great to me."