From her hospital bed, Denise Owens made a simple request.
The Hoffman Estates mother of three asked her kids to deliver her laptop so she could finish her homework.
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Helping handWhat: Harper College's Rita and John Canning Women's Program
Participants: 446 in 2013, with about half victims of domestic violence
Performance: More than 300 attend Harper, with 86 percent of those who completed fall semester 2012 earning a 2.0 grade-point average or higher
Annual budget: $350,000, funded by Harper College, the Harper College Educational Foundation and the federal Perkins grantSource: Harper College
Read our Q-and-A with the Cannings on Page 5.
"There have been times that were hard, but if you have the desire … you can do anything," said Owens, 53.
She was on track to a new beginning at Harper College after an adult life marked by an abusive marriage and a series of events that had left the family homeless.
Three times a week, she was on kidney dialysis. She ended up in the hospital twice, each time missing a week of classes.
An upbeat woman with a warm smile, she found ways around the fatigue, towing her books around the Palatine campus in her rolling suitcase. And she leaned on a group of women she calls her family and on the counselors who helped her carve out a new life.
It paid off in May 2012 when she earned an associate degree in criminal justice.
"Everything that I reached out to accomplish, I accomplished," she said.
Owens is a product of Harper's Rita and John Canning Women's Program, which steers low-income women and a few men to education and jobs.
Many of them have survived domestic violence. Some face barriers to male-dominated careers. Others are single moms who once depended on their ex's pay and lack the skills to join the workforce.
The program provided Owens funding for tuition and books, counseling and camaraderie.
"I couldn't ask for a better advocate and a better system," said Owens, a native of Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood.
The Cannings have long donated to their namesake program, but they wanted to secure its future. In March, the Inverness couple announced a $1 million gift -- the first seven-figure donation in Harper's 47-year history.
"The goal is to make women self-sufficient," Rita Canning said. "Without education, they don't stand a chance."
Harper hopes the gift -- $100,000 a year for a decade -- will lead to more public-private partnerships. It comes as community colleges across Illinois have shut down similar programs after lawmakers cut state grants.
"These types of partnerships scaled in a much larger way will be what I think is going to be the difference in public education," Harper President Ken Ender said.
Harper pairs each woman with a program specialist. Together, they search for jobs or plan for school. Harper guides women through the challenging logistics of financial aid applications, child care, housing, transportation, tutoring.
"We establish a relationship," said Susan McNamara, a program specialist for 13 years. "We let them know what they're going through is exactly why we exist. There's nothing they can't ask us."
Laid off from a steady job at a telecommunications company and evicted from her Schaumburg townhouse in 2005, Owens and her kids shuffled from churches to shelters to friends' homes.
Other homeless families offered car rides ferrying her son and daughter to school.
"We had fallen, but we were going to get up," Owens said.
Someone, she can't remember who, handed her the emergency phone number to Women in Need Growing Stronger. She dialed the Palatine nonprofit -- Rita Canning sits on the board -- and found transitional housing and legal counseling to help her divorce her husband, who she said was an alcoholic who physically and verbally abused her.
She says she's still healing from the 16-year marriage, but she holds no anger against the man, who died last year. She's now reaching out to victims of domestic abuse though her Elgin church.
"I've got a drive that I'm not going to let nobody break me down," Owens said. "You might take it away for a minute, but I'm not going to let you take my joy forever."
After she got settled, WINGS put her in touch with Harper's women's program in 2009.
Owens was leery. She was much older than the typical college student. But then she walked into an orientation and met women like her.
"I was encouraged from that day," Owens said.
She started off with just one class, Sociology 101. She got an "A" and stepped up to two courses each semester until she graduated.
Today, she's four classes shy of a bachelor's degree from Roosevelt University and hopes to become an adult or juvenile probation officer.
She's gearing up for her son's high school prom and graduation. She inspired the 17-year-old to enroll at Harper, too. The track star plans to study marketing and donate one of his kidneys to his mom.
"I am a very proud mother," Owens said.
She will return to Harper in May for another commencement, where she will cheer on the latest grads from the women's program.
If they have any doubts about their future, she tells them she's always a phone call away.
"That's to me like family," Owens said. "And that's what you need. I love them all."