Deborah Harris: An Advocate for People in Recovery, Creating Hope, and Breaking Barriers

Deborah Harris is determined to help others break their barriers to success – and as a mother of four, student and professional – she has worked hard to do the same.

In her role as the Lead Transition Agent for Jobs and Hope WV, Deborah is part of a team that supports people in recovery and helps them to find employment. Her commitment to empowering others is evident as she talks about the statewide program that launched earlier this year, and has already received hundreds of referrals.

“Sometimes people feel they don’t have the worth to achieve something, but they might just need a little encouragement and support. They need to know that their past doesn’t define who they are.”

Deborah’s path to success was challenging, but she has ultimately achieved a fulfilling and successful career. She gives credit to others for helping her - including the YWCA Mel Wolf Child Development Center.

“I moved to Charleston in 2008 as a single mom of two, and I was pregnant. My older daughter started at Mel Wolf, and then when the baby was born, she started there. The ladies at Mel Wolf welcomed me and reassured me. It was important for me to have both girls there together,” she said.

Deborah started college at age 30, while also working as an AmeriCorps VISTA. She attended Bridge Valley Community and Technical College, studying behavioral health addictions.

“It was overwhelming to be in school, working, and taking care of three children. Someone at Bridge Valley told me about TANF, and I was able to keep working part time and have benefits from TANF. It took a lot of financial burden off of me when I was doing all of those things.”

After graduating from Bridge Valley, Deborah started at West Virginia State University in a bachelor’s degree program for leadership and rehabilitation. “Bridge Valley has a special place in my heart for encouraging me to continue with my education,” she said.

She worked as a peer counselor while studying at West Virginia State, which meant that she got to work with those students who had been in a position similar to hers – in school, working and taking care of their families at the same time.

“I felt like I had come full circle helping those students,” she said.

While she was working on her bachelor’s degree, Deborah got engaged. She and her husband had their first baby a month after she graduated. As soon as there was a spot at the Mel Wolf Child Development Center for her youngest daughter, she took it. Her daughter is still there today.

“I am friends with the ladies at Mel Wolf. We are friends on Facebook, we text, and those friendships are very important to me. They have played a huge role in helping my kids be ready for school.”

Deborah continued to counsel students while studying for her master’s degree. She was soon invited to a meeting about the program she’s currently working for – then called Jim’s Dream, for Governor Jim Justice.

“They wanted to develop the program to get people into treatment and help them find jobs. After giving them some input, I received an email for a meeting about how to get the program off the ground. They eventually offered me a full-time position,” she said.

She started after graduating with her master’s degree, so she could finish out the school year and help those students she had been counseling. Her team of transition agents works statewide with other partners to identify people who can benefit from the program. They received about 400 referrals just from August 2019, when the program started, to October.

“We help people – not just people in recovery – remove barriers to employment. People need that positive support in their lives and our transition agents have become that,” she said. “My job is to advocate for recovery, and to give people hope.”

Deborah and her husband, Philip, are both involved in activities with their children and in the community. “My husband is my teammate. We have to divide and conquer with our schedules, but we have a very full life together.”

“I’m very proud and humbled to receive the Empowerment Award. The Mel Wolf Child Development Center has been a huge part of my story. Experiencing trials doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful. It makes you stronger.”