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Ruth Kanatser of Harm Reduction Action Center receives first Josephine Roche advocacy award

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In a small ceremony at a cozy coffee shop Friday night, Ruth Kanatser, the "mama bear" of the little red house on Lipan Street that's home to the Harm Reduction Action Center, won the inaugural Josephine Roche Award, named for Denver's first policewoman.

Kanatser shares many of Roche's best qualities, organizers said. Chief among them? Compassion for those society often overlooks.

Full disclosure: My fiance, Chris Conner -- who works as a program manager for Denver's Road Home, the city's plan to end homelessness -- created the honor. "This award is about building a community where direct service and advocacy are linked together," he said at the ceremony. It's meant to honor a civil servant or nonprofit staff member who is committed to both -- much like Roche was in the early 20th century.

At the ceremony, Conner explained that Roche, whose job title was "inspector of amusements," would go to Denver's red light district -- and rather than arrest the sex workers, she would try to reconnect them with their families. She also connected the women with drug treatment and offered them screening for syphilis. Her ideas were ahead of their time.

Kanatser, too, has advocated for progressive ideas, including bringing a legal syringe exchange program to Denver. And she (and many others dedicated to the cause) were successful. The Harm Reduction Action Center, which has served injection drug users since 2002, is on its way to becoming one of Denver's first exchanges.

A former user herself, Kanatser strongly believes in harm reduction, a philosophy that aims to meet drug users "where they're at" and tries to keep them safe. That's exactly how she makes the men and women who frequent the center feel, her colleagues say. "One thing you need to know about Ruth is she's mama bear," said Lisa Raville, the center's director. She added, "Ruth's one of the biggest huggers out there."

Kanatser was presented with a plaque and a proclamation from Governor John Hickenlooper recognizing her as the inaugural recipient. "I know that maybe for a lot of people, I'm the face of what they experience when they walk in that house," Kanatser said of the center. "But that was a privilege that was given to me." She added, "I'm always so grateful if even just a little bit of what I've been given can rub off."

More from our News archives: "Needle exchanges: City council approves making Denver ordinance allowing them more flexible."

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