MOMENTS before she grabbed the Clef Club mic and sang Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone" as if she were pleading for her life, Gina Albater said, "I always wanted to be a singer, but I started using drugs when I was 13, so all my dreams went down the drain."
She's 36 now, lucky to be alive, lucky to be dreaming again - and she knows it.
Like her fellow competitors in the first round of Recovery Idol 2014 - which ends in September when two finalists will battle at Penn's Landing in front of 20,000 people in recovery - the South Philly singer is now clean and sober, and fighting to stay that way.
"I was raised around a bunch of addicts, so I thought that was normal," Albater said. "People told me, 'You're a piece of crap.' They thought I was a waste and was going to die."
When Albater was a little girl, her mother died from multiple sclerosis. Her father lives a thousand miles away. "So basically," she said, "I only have the people I meet in recovery."
Like other recovering addicts who competed earlier this month at the jazz club, on Broad Street near Fitzwater, in front of a full house of family and friends, Albater was singing for more than herself.
"There's probably a girl out there and she's 13 and she's lost her mom and she don't know where to go," Albater said. "I want to make sure she knows there's a way out and you don't have to make all the mistakes I did."
Even in the depths of her addiction, Albater said, she'd put her hand on the storefront window of the Norbertine Seminary Guild, on Broad Street near McKean, and talk to the statues of Jesus and the saints inside.
"I prayed all the time," she said. "I never lost hope. I thought, 'I'm not meant to die like this. I'm supposed to be here for something.' "
She believes her prayers were heard. "I didn't get beat up," Albater said. "I didn't get into that rapist's car."
She said her recent year in prison was a blessing in disguise. "I got clean and I was like, 'I'm done.' I go to 12-step meetings. I have a higher power who I'm grateful to every day for giving me the gift of voice.
"I want to make sure I make my dreams come true. I don't want to get old and say I didn't make anything happen."
Recovery Idol, now in its fourth year, is the brainchild of Derrick Ford, 56, who has lived "24 nonstop years" in recovery after a short career as a gun-toting drug dealer in Strawberry Mansion and a long history as an addict.
"I was homeless, eating out of Dumpsters and sleeping next to dead bodies in an abandoned house at 15th and Poplar with no lights, no water, no heat," Ford said.
His eyes grew moist. "And then," he said, "on Oct. 2, 1990, I had the quietest moment of my life since I was in my mother's womb."
He said he was overwhelmed by a spiritual awakening that could only have come from God.
"I cried all that day, and I kept hearing this voice saying, 'It's over. It's over.' And I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that come hell or high water, I would not go back to using drugs again."
Ford is grateful that his mother lived long enough to see his transformation.
"I walked into her room on Jan. 6, 1993, and found my mother on the floor, dead," he said. "God got me clean before he took my mother."
For 20 years, Ford has visited his mother's grave every week at Mount Peace Cemetery on Lehigh Avenue near 31st Street, a few blocks from where he grew up in the '60s.
"I spend a lot of time at the cemetery," Ford said. "I clean her grave off, tell her what's going on with me, have my little moment with my mother. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she prays for me."
Ford has answered his mother's prayers for 19 years as a city mental-health case manager, helping fellow travelers on the uphill climb to recovery from drug and alcohol abuse.
So while he was quick with the onstage hugs for starstruck Clef Club contestants, Ford warned them all beforehand, "This is Recovery Idol, not Discovery Idol. Don't let this get to your head."
He checked in with each one, asking, "Any urges? Any cravings? Are you struggling? Can we help you?"
Even after 24 years of sobriety, Ford said: "I suffer from the disease of addiction that has no known cure. I still attend 12-step meetings because I know what would happen if I stopped.
"Every Saturday night, no matter what's going on, I'm in my 8 o'clock meeting with my group of folks in recovery," he said. "I get spiritually fed and I am restored there. God led me to those meetings and then those meetings led me back to God."
Robin Collins, of Germantown, who delivered a sweetly soulful rendition of Mary Wells' "Two Lovers," also credited God with guiding her through two clean and sober years after a lifetime of drug abuse.
"I got married in addiction and I raised my children in addiction," said the 49-year-old mother of eight.
"I suffered from depression. I knew I was going to die. I felt death. God just put his hands on me and said that was enough."
Collins left home and went into the shelter system to get away from drugs. "I was tired of hurting people," she said. "I didn't want to die and have my children say, 'If only she had quit.' "
Her children were in her cheering section at the Clef Club. "I'll be 50 in May," Collins said, "and, God willing, I'm just beginning to live."
Ron Davis, of North Philadelphia, who had women voicing their approval of his seductive delivery of the Isley Brothers' "At Your Best (You Are Love)," said he's been in recovery for "three years, four months, 15 days."
Davis said the rehab programs at Horizon House, where he now works, saved his life. "I don't exactly know when the miracle happened," he said, "but when it happened, I bought into it. I'm retired from addiction like a boxer retires from the ring.
"God has been good to me and I'm not going to turn my back on that," Davis said. "Because I just don't think I'll get another chance."