JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Lisa Nickles is part of a group calling themselves the Future Five — five women who just completed hundreds of hours of training to become certified nail technicians while they served time at the Washington County Jail in Jonesborough.

“When I went to class and found it was for nails, which I love to do and can do, I was real excited,” said Nickles, who was released late last week.

That release after serving time for forgery came just in time to start what she hopes to be a new life that will make her and her family proud after years of substance abuse battles. Feeding that abuse led to bad decisions and crimes that left the Johnson City woman in and out of jail over a period of years.

Lisa Nickles, center, flanked by Wendy and Craig Charles as she celebrates graduating from nail tech training while incarcerated at the Washington County, Tenn. jail. Nickles plans to become a teacher at the Charles’ barber and nail tech schools. (Photo: WJHL)

“I’m sick and tired of going to jail, I’m sick and tired of being nothing and having nothing,” Nickles remembered thinking when she found herself in jail once again nearly a year ago.

She credits Craig Charles of Crown Cutz Academy for helping her realize she could believe in herself. Charles teamed up with Lisa Evans of the First Tennessee Development District’s Workforce Innovation program, which had gotten grant funding for a nail tech program from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce’s Office of Reentry.

“Craig gave me the confidence,” she said. “Not only did he tell me, he made me believe it and I knew he meant what he said. That I was worth something, he [saw] something in me and he just kept telling me how smart I was.”

Now, 600-plus hours of training later, Nickles is back home in a small apartment with her family and is determined that this reentry will be a successful one. For the first time, she said, she actually reported to her probation officer and plans to toe the line.

Charles, whose wife Wendy recently opened Proficient Nail Academy as a complement to Craig’s barber school, gave Nickles her own graduation ceremony at Wendy’s downtown academy Thursday after hustling from the jail where her four colleagues had graduated.

He said he approached what became his “Future Five” class a little differently.

“One of the key things I decided when I first got into the jail, was to teach confidence first because I believe if I teach confidence first, the skill will come after,” Charles said.

“I didn’t want to just bombard them with the skill and push the skill on them, because the skill can be discouraging at times, picking it up, but giving someone confidence to believe in themselves, I think that’s a big win.”

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Despite Charles’ light touch and encouragement, the class eventually settled at five people, about a third of the starting group. That didn’t discourage Charles from his desire to give people “a hand up, not a handout.”

“Everybody’s probably about three degrees from some life-changing experience that can alter their livelihood,” he said. “And most of these women, a lot of times it’s just circumstances and environment that got them to be in a position they’re in and we just can’t forget about them.”

As the women who graduated Thursday persevered, they took to calling themselves “The Future Five.” Charles asked each of them to come into the four-day-a-week class ready with some type of quote or positive thought. He eventually noticed Nickles writing them all down and told the students he’d put them into an inspirational book, which has copies produced.

All that effort on Charles’ part has left the students with graduation tassels, a book to their names and sufficient training to take their nail tech certification tests — plus the confidence to believe they can live differently and be successful in life and at work.

“Three of the goals I started this year with was empower the workforce, help with the underserved community and just give back,” Charles said. He said when Lisa Evans and Sgt. Wayne Boggs from the jail approached him, “It kind of led to that path to be able to give back.”

“It’s understanding what your community needs and understanding that the workforce is something that’s important … if you can do your part to empower the workforce one by one in your community, you’re helping to push the envelope.”

With the challenges Nickles and her classmates were facing, Charles focused on more than just the technical side.

“One of the things I told them, if the only thing you learn from me is the skill of how to do this trade, I’ve done you a disservice,” he said. “We talked about mental health. We talked about financial literacy. We talked about professional image, life skills, just the basic necessity things you need to survive once you’re outside.”

Becoming a leader

Wendy Charles said there’s plenty of demand in the nail tech industry for people like the Future Five to flourish in the trade. But Craig Charles has high hopes for Nickles and thinks she can go beyond working at a salon.

“He wants me to be a teacher,” Nickles said.

Wendy Charles, left, shows Lisa Nickles some pointers on a manicure training tool at Charles’ Proficient Nail Academy in downtown Johnson City, Tenn. (Photo: WJHL)

Nickles has dabbled in nail work for friends for a decade and even planned to attend another cosmetology school at one point.

But she said her addiction struggles and a lack of confidence always combined to derail any ambitions she might have — until two things happened, both during her most recent stint behind bars.

Nickles started her latest sentence in Sevier County, was transferred to Sullivan County and eventually came to Washington County. About her second month in Jonesborough, she said, “something distracted me. I literally felt something come over me and I felt a change. I knew.

“I know it sounds crazy but everything kept falling into place. … divine intervention, absolutely.”

By the time Sgt. Boggs approached women about the program Charles would teach, Nickles said something seemed to have changed in her mindset.

“When I was in jail before and it got close to my release date, all I could think about was, ‘I can’t wait to get high, I can’t wait to take this or I can’t wait to do that,'” she said.

“This time — I’m not gonna lie, there’s stuff in jail … there’s ways, but everybody’d be like ‘you want to do it?’ And I’m like ‘no, I really don’t.’ Honestly, I really don’t want to do it.”

Then Charles began telling Nickles she had leadership abilities.

“There was 14 girls at that time and out of everybody he kept telling me, ‘you’re going to be a teacher, you’re going to be a teacher at my school,'” she said. “It made me feel really good.”

“He said that I’m very smart, I’m calm, I’m caring, I teach well and he said I light up the room when I walk in, I just have a presence that people like.”

For someone who’d never thought she was smart or had much worth, the affirmation came at the right time.

Staying on the right side

Nickles is on probation in three different jurisdictions. If she violates in Washington County, she’ll have to return to jail and do “three years, day for day,” as she puts it.

That’s not her plan. Her mother-in-law, Freda Nickles, said the whole family is proud of her, including her husband, who’s battling terminal brain cancer, and two older sons. She’s getting things lined up to attend barber school, which is a 1,500-hour course, after which the Charles want to have a place waiting for her at either academy or both.

She met her probation officer Wednesday, took a drug test and had a home visit. Standard obligations, yes, but ones she hadn’t typically met before when she’d left incarceration.

“I keep telling myself, if you do (revert to old ways) you’re going to mess up, you’re going to end up right back where you [were] and you’re going to miss this opportunity, you’re gonna miss everything. My kids, this is my last shot with them.”