Twenty years ago, Carmen Ortiz believed she was on top of the world.
She was working as a district attorney, a job she had always dreamed of. She was married to a successful attorney, and they had two young, healthy, bright daughters.
Then she discovered life can be “like a roller coaster.’’
Her ride went from a high peak to rock bottom when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. He fought it for eight years with her help, but ended up losing his life to the disease.
She struggled with the emotional suffering of losing her life partner and watching her daughters miss their father. She realized that her earlier feeling of accomplishment, of being on top of the world, was fragile.
Ortiz has rebounded and is back on top now, serving as Massachusetts’ first female U.S. attorney. She is the lead attorney prosecuting James “Whitey’’ Bulger on behalf of the federal government. She is also head of an office that handles all federal cases in Massachusetts, from regional drug busts to crimes involving businesses.
Although she has many responsibilities, Ortiz said one of her top priorities is speaking publicly to girls and young women about building their personal and professional futures. Her message is simple but direct: The keys are hard work, believing in yourself, maintaining strong relationships and a commitment to family.
She delivered that message to girls who are members of Haverhill’s Girls Inc. — “The Girls Club,’’ as they call it. The venue was last week’s Girls Inc. 99th birthday bash, a dinner attended by local leaders, supporters of the club and many of the girls who are members.
Organizers of the event said Ortiz inspired club members and strengthened their belief that they can accomplish their goals just as she has, and that they can also rise above life’s challenges, as difficult as they might be.
“Attorney Ortiz, with her background, hard work and success, epitomizes what our mission is — to create an environment where girls can learn to see their true potential through education and experience,” said Robin Whitson, executive director of Girls Inc.
Ortiz has served since 2009 as Massachusetts’ first female U.S. Attorney. Last week’s event was Nov. 8 at the Renaissance Golf Club, 377 Kenoza St. The celebration also kicked off a money-raising effort by Girls Inc. to help low-income girls become members or participate in club activities. More information is available by calling the club at 978-372-0771 or at the club’s website — girlsinchaverhill.org.
The event also honored three women from the community. Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien, a registered nurse/case manager for Merrimack Valley Hospital and Haverhill’s only female city councilor, received the “Bold” award. Molly Sullivan Sliney, a two-time Olympic fencing winner and educational/motivational speaker to children, received the “Smart” award. Penelope Guerrero Perez, a member of the Girls Inc. community and a shoe designer for the successful Timberland brand, received the “Bold” award.
Guerrero Perez, with tears in her eyes, talked about the confidence that Girls Inc. developed in her when she was a young participant at the club. She summed up the event by holding up a sign that displayed, in big bold letters, the words “Don’t quit.’’