Cassandra Harris, 48, canvasses her neighborhood for supporters of Red Zone Neighborhood Watch on November 29, 2012.
Cassie Harris leads her family in prayer before dinner on Thursday, December 13 at her South Peoria home. Harris, who has four of her own children, raised her two young nephews as well after her sister died of AIDS. Harris says her faith and her family have been the most important factors in the road to her recovery.
Harris jokes around with her son Dante Dothard, 22, at her South Peoria home on Thursday, December 13. When Dothard was 3 years old, Harris gave birth to her youngest child, Shawniece Sephus, with cocaine in her system. DCFS took Sephus and Dothard, as well as Harris' oldest son, Jeremiah Dothard, away from Harris, and put them into foster care. Dante eventually came back to live with Harris, and now he says he's learned from her experiences.
Shawniece Sephus, 18, helps Harris with her hair at their South Peoria home on an evening in December. Sephus, who was taken away from Harris by DCFS when she was born because Harris had cocaine in her system at the time of the birth, spent much of her childhood with a foster family. Two years ago, Sephus came back to live with Harris full-time.
Cassie Harris walks through her South Peoria neighborhood on Thursday, November 29. She spends some afternoons going door to door, talking to people and trying to gain support for Neighborhood Watch. Harris strongly believes that if the neighborhood takes a united stand against the gang and drug-related violence, the impact will be great. "We're a gang within ourselves," she told one neighbor. "As neighbors, we can be strong, and strong together."
Cassie Harris gets a hug from Gilbert Comer of Peoria after her Red Zone Neighborhood Watch meeting at the Lincoln branch of the Peoria Public Library on Tuesday, December 4. Harris organized the meeting as an outreach effort to connect with the community and get support for  Neighborhood Watch.
Cassie Harris thanks Danny White for his time after talking with him about the Red Zone Neighborhood Watch, and the importance of working together as a community to combat neighborhood violence. "I feel that if you got a gang of 5, that's cool, but what if you got a gang of all of us? We would be a little bit bigger, wouldn't we?" Harris asks.
After Harris' children were taken by DCFS, she says she got worse before she got better. "I totally lived a life of deprivation, walked the streets, prostitution, stopped caring. Nothing to live for."  Harris says she eventually "crawled in the door" of a treatment center asking for help. Maintaining her sobriety since then has been struggle, and Harris has had numerous relapses. But now, she says, things are different. "I love myself now. I love Cassie. Instead of life choosing me, I'm choosing life."
Now, Harris is motivated to stay sober for her children, and by the desire to make a better life for them and for herself. "Seeing their faces, wanting to hold them...looking at them with the right mind, is what motivates me today." Here, she rests a hand on her nephew Jacob Bennett's shoulder. Harris raised Bennett after Bennett's mother passed away from AIDS when he was 5 years old.
Cassie Harris laughs with her son, Dante Dothard, 22, and daughter, Shawniece Sephus, 18, at her South Peoria home in December.
Cassie Harris speaks to young children in Project Next Generation, a group that teaches computer skills to youth, at the Lincoln Branch of the Peoria Public Library on Tuesday, December 4. One of Harris' main concerns is that there's nothing for young kids to do in the neighborhood. When she asked them what they'd want, answers included more parks, more police, less guns, and a place to play basketball, baseball, and football.
Cassie Harris and friend Laura Baize greet each other before Sunday morning's church service on December 23 at Christ Lutheran in South Peoria.
Cassie Harris listens during a Sunday morning church service at Christ Lutheran in South Peoria. "I know now, more, with being sober, that I have a job. God has put me on this earth for a reason. And I have a purpose."
Cassie Harris kisses Jamison Warfield, 25, at her Peoria home. When Warfield was 11, he and his brother came to live with Harris, his mother's sister, after their mother died of AIDS. "My heart is in this," Harris says. "I don't want nobody to suffer. And their children to wonder, where's my mom. That's why I care. Because I've been through this. And that's why I feel that I want to dedicate my life to helping others."