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Homeless and hooked on cocaine, Dellenna Harper had long since turned her back on her family, her friends, and herself.
In the midst of what she called a "steep downward spiral of self-destruction," she'd traveled the country with truck drivers, looking for the next score. Eventually, she wound up in jail, before she "basically slid under the door" of the Jennifer House in 2006, a Rochester home run by Spiritus Christi Prison Outreach for women who have just been released from incarceration.
Seven years later, she's the home's director. And helping her at nearly every step along the way was the YWCA.
"Today, I'm an empowered woman, with integrity, and dignity, and self-respect," said Harper, her voice cracking as she spoke to an audience of 1,600 people at the YWCA's annual Empowering Women's Luncheon on Tuesday afternoon. "I'm an asset not only to my community, but myself as well, and also the people I serve. I want to take a moment to personally thank the YWCA for helping me save my life."
The luncheon, which acts as the YWCA's largest fundraiser, raised $220,000 for the organization last year, and Harper was one of two women to receive standing ovations after her speech.
Harper, 39, of Irondequoit, recounted her experiences in the YWCA "Steppingstone Supported Living" program, which provides housing and support for drug-addicted women with children. The program usually lasts between six months and a year, but Harper stayed enrolled for two years, she said.
"They had to tell me that I had to go," she said. "I wore out my stay there."
But thanks to the love and support of the staff, Harper was able to move forward in her recovery, she said. In 2009, she graduated with a 4.0 grade point average from the addictions counseling program at MCC, then picked up her bachelor's degree from Nazareth before earning her master's in social work this past summer.
"The YWCA will forever be a brick in the foundation of my recovery," she said. "The YWCA does not have a pool, but they most certainly saved me from drowning."
By the time she'd finished her eight-minute speech, the audience at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center was on its feet applauding.
They'd do so again after the keynote address, which was delivered by Susan L. Taylor, who for 20 years was the editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. In a speech that touched on a variety of topics including spirituality, wellness, and her own background as a single mother, Taylor emphasized that women need to start putting themselves first.
While quipping that some would call the notion "sacreligious," Taylor said that at times, women need to put themselves ahead of their own children. Because when you're feeling hurt, she said, you're more liable to hurt the people around you.
"But when you're working with yourself, healing yourself, and feeling good about yourself, you bring your joy and your pain wherever you go," she said. "That's what my message is to you today: that your first responsibility is to you, ensuring your wellness in body, mind, and spirit."
The event, held annually, was attended by numerous area leaders and politicians, including Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, Rochester mayor Thomas Richards, and Rochester mayoral candidate Lovely Warren. Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president/news of the Democrat and Chronicle Media Group, served as the event's honorary chair.