Woman's hard work to lift herself, others gets national honor

Westminster tutor stresses education's importance

March 07, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

From the playground where she would sit with her toddler a dozen years ago, Darcel Harris could see the college and she would imagine herself studying in the stately brick buildings that grace the Westminster skyline.

"Western Maryland College was staring right at me every day," she said. "It was telling me to come."

For a single mother struggling on welfare and food stamps, matriculating in the halls of academia, especially at a private college, would be a financial impossibility. But not for a woman as driven as Darcel Harris.

"For me, education was a way off the welfare merry-go-round," she said. "I love learning and I knew I could be successful."

Harris, 48, entered the Renew program for displaced homemakers at Carroll Community College, "a good place to start," she said.

With financial aid and student loans and while working several part-time jobs, she enrolled at what is now McDaniel College. She graduated with honors in 1996 and within three years, earned a master's degree and a teaching certificate. Her young daughter often sat quietly beside her in class.

"My plan was to go to college," she said. "I had no idea of a major, let alone a master's."

Love for learning led her to start We Can Help, a tutoring and consulting business that she operates from an office suite on Westminster's Main Street. Her daughter, Martha, now 14, helps with the telephone and clerical work.

The business grew from the home-based tutoring Harris offered neighborhood youth at her kitchen table. She still lets some students pay by the barter system. "I get the grass cut or the car washed and they get help with reading," she said.

Harris' story won wide attention recently when she was chosen a "Woman of Triumph" by Women Work!, a 25-year-old national nonprofit organization that helps women reach self-sufficiency through education and employment.

Nominated by her former Renew mentor, Harris was one of 25 women chosen from more than 100 candidates nationwide to receive the award.

"Darcel Harris represents the heart of the work we do," said Jill Miller, chief executive officer at Women Work! in Washington. "Hers is an extraordinary story of success over the challenges and obstacles that all too frequently women have to overcome to take care of themselves and their families. She is a great role model for the kind of progress women in transition can make when they have programs to help them."

Harris has traveled a long way from the pregnant, homeless woman who lived in a county shelter 15 years ago to the efficient businesswoman she is today. She never forgets her history and will eagerly share it in the hopes of showing others the way to overcome adversity.

"I have my scars, but they are part of what help me make it today," she said.

She grew up in Washington, always intending to go to college.

"I fell in with the wrong people and made the wrong choices," she said. "I got really sidetracked and the emotional hole I got into was worse than the financial hole."

Martha's birth altered her mother's downward spiral.

"My daughter deserved more and she needed a chance," said Harris. "I guess I just needed somebody to sacrifice for."

Mother and daughter left Washington and by chance, stopped in Carroll County. A church group came to their aid and helped connect her with Renew.

"Renew made a job for me and I began recruiting people into the program," said Harris. "I could make a long list of people who went through that program and are now assets to the community. We have almost all stayed friends."

Laurie Shields was Renew services coordinator until last fall when the program lost its state funding and was dismantled. She called Harris "a survivor in action" and nominated her for the award.

"Darcel is a real activist in our community, a generous soul who always has kind words or a kick in the pants, if that's necessary," said Shields. "She has helped pull up many other folks and she is a real tribute to what you can accomplish. She is not embarrassed to put her story out there. She is saying that if she can do it, you can, too."

Harris runs the consulting business and tutors in the after-school program at West Middle School where she has helped establish a Reading Club. The students are writing scripts for a play, lyrics for rap songs and letters to pen pals.

"My job is to get them to love reading," she said.

To the preschoolers at the Westminster Family Center, she is "the book lady." Even the youngest children point to her and say "book" when she arrives at the center for women and children in crisis.

She also teaches adult education, one of her favorite jobs because she helps people earn GED diplomas. She encourages the new graduates to enroll at the community college.

"I will help anyone to achieve their dreams," she said.

As Harris walked across the stage to receive her Woman of Triumph award at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington last month, Martha was applauding in the audience.

"This is a great honor and I am really proud of my mom," her daughter said. "I know she saw that on my face."

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