Debra Person knows what rock bottom looks like.
She knows it all too well.
But she also knows how to rise back up.
“I’ve felt at times that I wanted to leave Syracuse because of pressures that were placed upon me,” the South Side native said. “But I believe strongly that God was cultivating my character for his use. So I endured it. I stayed in that boat and I believed in Jesus, and I made it to the other side. That’s the only reason I didn’t turn back to the life I used to live.”
That old life – one that involved drugs, alcohol and prostitution, as well as stints in jail – stemmed from a difficult youth with a father addicted to drugs; he died of an overdose at 45. Person watched her mother struggle to raise her and her five siblings while trying to care for her father, a balance she couldn’t always manage. Her less than idyllic childhood coupled with a sexual assault drove Person out of Syracuse in 1996; she ended up in Schenectady, where she was homeless, in and out of trouble, until 1998, when she found herself at the doors of the Schenectady City Mission.
That was where her trip out of Egypt began.
After 10 months at the mission, Person had begun to turn her life around. At that point, the mission, once a seven-bed facility, was expanding, adding 30 more beds and more programs for the community. The center’s directors offered Person a job as the facility’s first case manager.
“It was not something I thought could happen to me,” she said. “But God sent me there, and I stayed until 2004.”
During her tenure at the mission, Person completed her bachelor’s degree in social work at the College of St. Rose. She then returned to Syracuse, attaining her MSW from Syracuse University. Upon her return, she found a position as a sexual crisis counselor at Vera House.
“I never even knew about Vera House before, and I was a rape victim,” Person said. “What are the chances I’d get hired there?”
But Person said it was the hand of God that put her in that position.
“I needed to be here for my own healing,” she said. “One of my co-workers was teaching training about sexual abuse, and I had to remove myself from meeting so I could go into my office and talk to God about my own abuse. Here I thought I was delivered from that. I thought I was okay. When I had calmed down, I went back out, and it was just divine intervention, because the woman that was doing the training was outside my office. It was just the two of us in the hallway. She came in my office and the two of us just prayed. All this time, I thought I was healed. She helped me tremendously.”
Throughout her time at Vera House, Person came to the decision that Syracuse needed a faith-based crisis center and home for victims of domestic and sexual abuse, as well.
“As I continued to work there, I wanted to share the word of God,” she said. “And it’s not that I can’t do that through Vera House, but they have a different mission and a different method, and I respect that. I want to go in a different direction.”
Person hatched the idea of Exodus 3 Ministries (E3M) in 2008. The name comes from one of her favorite Bible passages, describing Moses’ encounter with God in the form of the burning bush as God tells him to lead the Israelites out of their suffering in Egypt. Person said she could relate well to the parable.
“I always liked Moses, because he said, ‘What, me, Lord? You want me?’ I always felt like that,” she said. “But at the same time, I felt called to this. Who better to help this community than me?”
Person came up with a business plan, which she then presented in a speech to Trinity Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The congregation, led by Pastor Ray Gausmann, meets at Drivers Village. They were so impressed with her ideas that they gave her a check for $10,000 and helped her set up a 501(c)3 corporation, giving her legal nonprofit status.
“I could not have done this without them,” Person said. “Trinity Evangelical Presbyterian has been such a blessing to me.”
Since then, Person and the volunteers at E3M have been hard at work getting the ministry off the ground.
“This ministry is about helping women depend on something greater than themselves,” she said, “and the way we’re going to do that is twofold.”
The first prong involves going out into the community and helping women in their homes. Person described two programs – Spiritual Physical Intellectual Emotional Social (SPIES) and Serving Without A Title (SWAT) – which involve cleaning up the homes of women in need in the Syracuse area and providing for their spiritual and emotional needs. They’re doing so with the aid of Eagle Wings Academy, which has partnered with the ministry in its efforts.
“They may have homes physically, but they are spiritually and emotionally homeless,” Person said. “Our goal is to help with that. We have one woman. She’s 25 years old, and she has four kids. I have pictures of her home, and it’s almost totally dark. It’s depressing. We’re trying to make it so that it’s a little brighter, physically and spiritually.”
In addition, E3M will house women and their children for up to a year at no cost.
“All of their needs will be provided for,” Person said. “To that end, we’re asking area churches to help us with our Alabaster Box Personal Care ministry. We’re placing boxes in area churches and asking people to fill them up with anything they think a woman might need – toothbrushes, toothpaste, pads, absolutely anything a woman and her child might need during the course of a year, we want to provide that so that a woman staying with us doesn’t have to worry about it.”
Her work has not gone unnoticed. This spring, Person was honored with the 2011 Daniel and Mary Lou Rubenstein Social Justice Award from Syracuse University’s School of Social Work in the College of Human Ecology. The honor recognizes a person who reflects the values of social justice in his or her professional and personal life. The award is given in honor of the late professor Daniel Rubenstein, a former faculty member in the School of Social Work, and his late wife, Mary Lou, a former school social worker.
Person didn’t do all of this alone. She said she owes a great debt to those who helped her along the way; Gary Wellings, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Syracuse, which Person attends, who she said “allowed God to use him to make a difference;” Gausmann and Trinity Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which donated $10,000 to E3M in startup money; and Terry Formica from Drivers Village, who donated the space for the fundraisers.
Since last year’s fundraiser, Person said some good things have been happening for E3M. At the top of the list? The organization has found a property.
With the help of Joyce MacKnight of Pyramid Brokerage Company, Person found the former St. Stephen’s Church at 301-305 North Geddes St., Syracuse. The three-building property includes the sanctuary, the rectory and a three-car garage. Person said she believes it will be perfect for what she envisions for the ministries.
“We have to get this building,” she said. “It’s the perfect place for us.”
Person said she could see the rectory used as the home to house women and children in need of shelter for up to a year, while the sanctuary could be used for community events and education about domestic violence issues. As for the garage, she foresees converting it to more usable space – a computer room, a playroom for the kids or other similar uses.
“I want the residents to feel like this is an intimate, homey environment,” Person said. “This will be a safe place for them, and I want them to feel at home here. They can sit down and have meals together here. Their children can have fun here. This is their home.”
The Oct. 7 fundraiser at Drivers Village, which has donated the space for the event, will help to raise money for E3M to purchase the property. This year’s Flight to Freedom Fashion Show and Banquet, like last year’s, will feature Juli Boeheim as emcee. It will also include a fashion exchange, witness wear and designs by Cheryl Geiger. Food will be provided through Carnegie Catering. Tickets are $45; call 396-0056 for more information.
Person said the show will begin with testimony from a woman who has benefited from E3M’s efforts.
“She suffered through trauma and abuse at 14, and she’ll share her story,” Person said. “Ultimately, I’d like for the Flight to Freedom to be about that – to use it to allow women to tell their stories and to use that to help them heal.”
It was through her work with E3M and Vera House – which Person calls the first place she ever felt free – that Person herself was truly able to heal from the trauma she experienced in her younger days.
“I never thought I’d be in the position I’m in,” Person said. “I never thought I was smart enough. God cleaned up my life, and now I’m raising my brother’s children. They have an opportunity to have a stable life now. Who would have ever thought? I’m no longer a walking wounded woman. I’m free.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.