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Slow and steady, woman on a mission to help breast cancer patients

Annie Harris moves along Beaver Avenue in downtown State College.
Annie Harris moves along Beaver Avenue in downtown State College. CDT file photo

In all her 65 years, Annie Harris never has let cerebral palsy deter her from a full life of discovery, adventure and achievement.

Now, she has trained her indomitable spirit on another goal: to make sure breast cancer doesn’t hold back other women.

Harris, a State College resident who may be the oldest black woman with her condition living independently, is a writer and disabilities issues advocate with a new mission. In November, she wrote a revised second edition of her memoir, “It’s Easier to Dance — Living Beyond Boundaries,” which recounts her challenging but rich journey from birth with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects her movement and speech.

Along the way, she earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s in education, both from Penn State; worked and taught across the country; traveled to Zimbabwe, Haiti and Eastern Europe; and inspired students, colleagues and others. She launched, and continues to run, her publishing and motivational business, Poetry Cards.

Her latest effort involves the Penn State Lady Lions benefit basketball game for the Pennsylvania Pink Zone on March 1. Started seven years ago, the nonprofit organization has raised about $825,000 for breast cancer research, education and treatment.

By the end of February, she hopes to raise $2,400 through her book sales and donations. That would allow her to order, at her author’s reduced rate, 700 copies of her memoir — which now sports a pink cover and includes a new final chapter about the decline of home-based care in America — and give one to each breast cancer survivor attending the game.

Copies are available, among other outlets, at Webster’s Bookstore Café in State College and via Harris’ blog, http://annie-facingchallenges.blogspot.com. So far, Harris has collected about $1,400.

“The State College/Penn State community continues to be so generous!” she said by email.

She’s counting on further support to realize her wish.

Her book, she hopes, will empower breast cancer survivors to see themselves as whole, capable individuals limited only by their imaginations — as she always has viewed herself.

She draws connections between battling breast cancer and coping with physical disabilities such as hers.

“The muscles and tissues that are cut out in a mastectomy leave the patient so weak that she has trouble lifting or doing normal activities,” Harris said. “The same adaptive equipment those of us with traditional disabilities use may also help these women.”

Body and self concerns, she said, are another link.

“I faced this myself when I had to undergo a biopsy in my mid-30s,” she said. “Although it was negative, I was very frightened of losing ‘the only part of my body viewed as normal.’ I didn’t tell anyone except a close friend.”

Miriam Powell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Pink Zone, already knew Harris well from Lady Lions basketball games and other university athletic events when her friend, a devoted Pink Zone advocate and Penn State sports fan, last fall outlined her gift plan.

Powell liked it immediately.

“I was thrilled with her idea because we are always looking for something unique and meaningful to give to breast cancer survivors, and this was a perfect fit for so many reasons,” Powell said.

Chief of which was Powell could see what it meant to Harris.

“Annie has dealt with such adversity in her life, and overcome that adversity, and I think it means the world to her to share her story,” Powell said.

Soon after, at a Pink Zone fundraising committee meeting, Powell and other members embraced Harris‘ vision — to the tune of $200 from their pockets on the spot.

That led to Harris’ formal campaign kickoff on Nov. 16: a birthday party for her at Webster’s, where she suggested donations in lieu of gifts. Powell said another fundraiser, a Silpada Designs jewelry party hosted by breast cancer survivor Pam Asencio, is set for 6-8 p.m. Jan. 26 at the American Ale House in Toftrees.

“People know who Annie is, and so many people support her, especially with this mission,” Powell said. “She is just so passionate about getting these books to the breast cancer survivors. Her passion has spread to the rest of us, and we’re going to get it done.”

Jeremy Frank is committed.

Frank, a close friend and local engineer, plays in a band, Feats of Strength. He and his fellow musicians staged a concert to help Harris raise money for publishing her memoir’s second edition, and they’re with her all the way again.

“I just think her life is a fascinating story, and I like participating in it,” Frank said, adding he takes inspiration from her resolve and perspective.

“If you say something is hard for her, she’ll say, ‘No, it’s just slower.’ ”

He marvels at the memory of being on a business trip and meeting her by surprise at the Philadelphia airport.

“Most people would not think that if you need a scooter to travel, you could just jump up and take a flight, but Annie does that,” he said.

Harris doesn’t believe in grounded dreams, in limitations — never has, never will. She writes. She practices yoga. She counsels and advocates, creating brighter futures around her, her fertile mind carrying her forward as it has for decades.

“I like to be able to help others,” she said.

Her new final chapter starts with a declaration.

“One thing I will say up front is at this point in my life, I live completely without shame or blaming anyone or a divinity for my life’s circumstance.

“It is merely the ‘hand I was dealt’ and I have managed to find and create a few jokers in the deck, if you will.”

Powell believes another triumph is in the cards for her friend. At a basketball game several weeks from now, if all goes to plan, 700 women will hold a pink book brimming with courage and wisdom, and Harris will receive a present of her own.

“In my heart,” Powell said, “it’s our Pink Zone gift to Annie to make this happen because it’s so important to her.”

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