Phillitia Charlton survived more than her share of storms before the night 15 tornadoes sucker-punched Dayton and the surrounding area.
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One of the worst of the tornadoes took the roof of the Harrison Twp. home Phillitia shares with her family.
“It was unbelievable,” Phillitia said. “Still is.”
Transformation and pain from the other storms — the sudden death of her father before her birth, a mentally ill mother, foster care, child abuse, separation from her baby brother, bad relationships — helped her write her poetic diary “Death of A Lie (Charlton Publishing, $14.95)” as well as a play of the same name staged recently for the first time at the Dayton Art Institute.
“You can be successful and still have gone though things, but those things don’t define you,” she said.
The tornado came just before the start of preparation for the $10,000 play production made possible partly by a $3,000 a Culture Works administered Artist Opportunity Grant Program from Montgomery County Arts and Cultural District.
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Phillitia had to decide quickly whether the show would go on while she and her family recovered from the tornado or if she would give the grant money back.
Although still living with her family temporarily in Centerville, she pressed on with the play with the help of a team that included production manager Thomas Troutman and music director Eldridge “El” Coats and 25 others actors and crew members.
The result was a sold-out show that Phillitia plans to re-stage next year.
“Death of A Lie” tells the story of Phillitia’s bumpy journey from childhood to womanhood.
The storms started even before her birth.
The Dayton native’s mother was four months pregnant with her when Phillip, her Navy veteran father, was found dead of a possible heart attack.
“She spiraled out of control slowly after that,” Phillitia recalled of her mother. “She just never came back from that.”
Phillitia and her siblings, an older sister and a little brother bounced around in foster care in Detroit.
Her paternal grandmother eventually gained custody of Phillitia and her sister.
“My sister and I stayed together, but I haven’t seen my brother since I was 6 and he was 3,” Phillitia said.
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Life was relatively good until her grandmother died a few years later, leaving Phillitia and her sister to a great aunt who carried the baggage of being raised in the notorious Shawen Acres orphanage.
“She immediately started treating us the way she was treated,” Phillitia said of the mental and physical abuse. “There was really nowhere else for us to go.”
During her tumultuous childhood, Phillitia said she did everything she could to avoid going home and thus suffering the wrath of her great aunt.
She was a standout at Meadowdale, where her great aunt taught home economics.
Phillitia was a class officer, voted student with the most school spirit, managed the basketball team and ran cross country among other things.
Despite the tension at home, Phillitia said her great aunt valued education and gave her the love of the written word.
“It became a refuge for me,” Phillitia said.
She rattled off a list of her favorites: Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, etc.
According to the 2014 National Factsheet on the Educational Outcomes of Children in Foster Care, 20 percent of foster youth attend college. Of those students, 2 percent to 9 percent attain a bachelor’s degree.
Phillitia overcame the statistic and earned a major scholarship to Alabama State University.
“Along the way, I bump my head a lot,” she said. “You need a lot more than book smarts to be able to navigate college.”
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Instead of the success she found in high school, Phillitia said spent too much time ‘kicking it.” She dated the wrong guys and skipped classes, she said.
“It took losing my scholarship to understand,” Phillitia recalled.
Phillitia said she was pondering if she’d return to school following break.
It was beyond the time Phillitia was supposed to go back to school.
“She said ‘why are you still here’,” Phillitia recalled her then ill great aunt asking. “That was a pivotal moment for me. I have to finish what I started. I can’t come come home without a degree.”
After buckling down and applying for loans, Phillitia earned a bachelor's degree in public relations from Alabama State.
The storms were not over.
“I came home pregnant and I didn’t have a job,” she recalled.
The young mother eventually landed a position as a computer technician at the charter school.
“I didn’t like the job, but I liked the kids a lot,” she told this news organization. “I knew I didn’t want to be a computer technician.”
The experience led the now married mother of two to additional degrees and an 18-year career in education, lastly as a principal at Trotwood-Madison High School.
Once again, discord in his personal and professional life shifted the projection of Phillitia’s life.
She asked herself what she was doing for herself.
“I didn’t realize what I wanted to do because I was so business,” she said.
Phillitia said she “retired” herself from education and refocused on writing poetry, something she started doing at age 12.
She wrote the book in 2017. The play came the following year.
Now a personal and professional development coach and consultant, Phillitia says she wants to inspire others, particularly children living in foster care.
About 120 kids and their adult companions in county foster care were among the nearly 500 people to see Death of a Life staged.
They attended free of charge.
“I want people to understand that there is hope and also making a mistake doesn’t make you a mistake,” Phillitia said.