Westminster woman finds way to help herself and the community


"LIKE the gutter rat lurking in the rubble of a drug-filled life, I searched through the heap of human waste for someone to release me from the maze I was trapped in. Somehow I had gotten lost and I couldn't get out."

From "The Spider, the Web, and Me" by Darcel Harris, 1992.

When Harris stumbled into Westminster in 1990, she carried her beautiful 8-month-old daughter, Martha, and all the ugliness that came with her drug addiction and alcoholism.

Poverty, loneliness, and fear haunted her. But as she traveled up Route 26 and into a Lutheran church, she was determined to crawl back to a life that offered more hope.

Harris did more than crawl out; she jumped out and straight up.

By the time Martha was 18 months old, Harris' days of drugs and alcohol were over. By 1996, she had earned an undergraduate degree in English from Western Maryland College and in December she will have a graduate degree from there in reading with teacher certification.

Her journey was guided by God and a lot of other helping hands, she said. The Carroll County YMCA offered one of the biggest boosts.

"A YMCA brochure came in the mail one day. And it offered swimming lessons for parents and their children at the college pool," said Harris. "I was looking for a beginning -- a way to bond with Martha. The college pool was in walking distance, and tiny print at the bottom of the brochure said financial help was available, so we went. The swimming lessons and summer camps got us back into the community," said Harris.

In gratitude for that help, Harris is now the face behind the numbers in the organization's annual fund-raising campaign.

Last year, the YMCA helped many people such as Harris -- 205 families, 585 youths and 50 adults, to be precise. The YMCA board hopes to raise $56,000 during this year's "Partner in Youth" campaign to continue and increase outreach services.

"That goal is based on a greater need for financial assistance in the area," said Anne Kraybill, associate executive director for the YMCA. "Even though a reasonable increase is set for the goal each year, program money runs dry. All the money raised goes toward children, family and youth programs in this county."

During Harris' struggling years, the organization helped with summer camps and day care and free space where Harris to teach sign language, the one skill she had when she came to Westminster.

Now Harris teaches computer skills, employment skills and adult education for Carroll County Family Center.

"I like working with this population because I have been there," said Harris. "I like to tell them that we can get from the hole to being whole. And I want to be their centerpiece filled with tolerance and empathy. I love to see that spark once they start to become whole again."

Harris has seen that spark in her daughter. Martha plays the piano and wants to be a preacher. her ambition "since she was 2 years old," Harris said.

Years of hard times contribute to the advice she offers Martha, like, "You don't have to stick your hand in the mud to know it's dirty," and "Sometimes it's just good to cry."

The hard times and her journey out of the hole are also inspiration for Harris' writing. She writes poetry and what she calls "flash fiction" -- "one-page stories filled with rich details and excitement."

Harris is not sure what the future will bring, but she is certain her future will be bright, she said. "I live by the grace of God and, though I can't say where I'm going, I'm whole."

Used book sale

Hardbacks, paperbacks, big books, little books and books by the bag. You will find them all at the American Association of University Women's Used Book Sale Saturday.

From 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. in Jubilee Hall of Westminster United Methodist Church at Center and Main streets, you can buy hardback books for $1 and paperbacks for 50 cents.

A bargain table will offer two books for 25 cents. Before the afternoon is over, you can walk out with books by the bag for a reasonable price.

All the money raised will go toward an education fund that provides scholarships for women.

The AAUW is a national organization that promotes equity for women and girls, lifelong education and positive societal change. The local branch has 40 members and is seeking more. Any woman who has a college degree is eligible.

Information: 410-848-9151 or 410-857-4842.

Lisa Breslin's Central Carroll neighborhood column appears Mondays in the Carroll County edition of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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