Denise Zellous is a survivor, there’s no doubt about it. She has survived abuse, drug addiction, incarceration, and homelessness. Now, 22 years after a surprise chance helped turn her life around in 2000, she says she has made sure not to waste a single moment, making it her mission to help others.
“The magistrate said he wanted to give me an opportunity to make a different choice,” Zellous recalls of her life-changing event. “He was going to dismiss my case … and give me an opportunity to get clean.”
The stigma of drug addiction and homelessness can be difficult to overcome, and some people never get a chance to see the other side. It’s for that reason Zellous doesn’t mind retelling her story of trauma to anyone who asks, seeing it as “sending a message of hope for somebody else.”
After getting clean and finding personal stability, Zellous formed the Hope Project in 2011. But having lived a life full of tribulations is just a part of what makes Zellous suited for the crusade she has taken on.
Starting as a grassroots community project, the Hope Project was created at the place she once found refuge and recovery, local nonprofit Bethlehem Haven, which cares for homeless individuals and leads them towards self-sufficiency. Working with the organization’s transitional living program, her project focused on providing 19 homeless women with basic necessities to help get them back on their feet.
This all came to Zellous as a result of her own experience transitioning from homelessness. “When I got my children back after 11 months of recovery and getting my own place, I had forgotten to buy towels and washcloths,” she says. “I felt so defeated that I wanted to use again.”
Not wanting anyone else to have that same moment of despair, Zellous formed a plan. The Hope Project would supply household essentials like kitchen and bathroom necessities, bedding, and cleaning supplies. These may seem like small things to most of us, but they help to make a home comfortable and to make a person feel human. In 2013, the Hope Project grew into the nonprofit Zellous Hope Project.
While a lot of people would call what Zellous does “giving back to her community,” Zellous is also making sure to build a strong community as well. The assistance provided by the Zellous Hope Project, an all-volunteer organization, doesn’t stop at pots and pans. They supply transportation for those in need and pay for driver’s licenses, clothing, and vehicle repairs. They make sure to connect people with the resources that they may not know already exist.
Zellous, who’s been honored with multiple awards, including the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Jefferson Award, the Pittsburgh Dress for Success Women Rock Award, and a 2013 City of Pittsburgh proclamation, keeps an open dialogue with community members by asking what they need.
“We realize that, without the input of the people that we are serving, we are only giving out cookie-cutter approaches,” she says.
Today, the Zellous Hope Project serves hundreds of individuals and families throughout Allegheny County. In the spirit of community, they also collaborate with other organizations and programs to further help meet the needs of those it serves.
Zellous can be seen on the organization’s YouTube channel having discussions with community members and leaders on her show, Things To Know. “I give a report on what events are happening in the neighborhood or what’s being discussed on the news,” she says. Headquartered in McKees Rocks, Zellous Hope also finds some benefit in socializing, hosting an annual formal affair that gives people a chance to dress up, as well as a Christmas party where every child in attendance gets a gift.
Building and keeping deep relationships is an important part of the job that Zellous doesn’t take for granted.
“Communication is, like, my superpower,” Zellous chuckles. “It’s easy for me to relate to people. Not too much I haven’t been through or done.”
It’s the ability to relate to the struggle that helped her in her own recovery. Zellous found it difficult to talk to counselors and others who hadn’t walked in her footsteps. “There was a time I thought I was going to die out there on those streets because nobody related to me.”
She says she found her saving grace at Bethlehem Haven, which has counselors who know firsthand the pain of getting one’s life back on track. She became a certified peer specialist and received national credentials in family development.
Having based the structure of Zellous Hope Project on her own lived experiences, she has found what works: empathy.
“Empathy turns into hope,” she says, “and that ripple effect just keeps growing.”
Zellous Hope. 412-722-6611 or zelloushope.com