Little was said until the stick, actually a Native-American-made, beaded baton, was passed to Bonita Brice, 47, who had brought her two young grandchildren. Brice said her mother died when she was 4; she was passed among relatives and endured mistreatment (including once being made to drink a bottle of turpentine, she explained later). She had lost three sisters to heart disease and had had open-heart surgery herself two years ago.

Pressing one child to her breast, she said she had never been out to meet anyone there. "I miss my mama and I don't even know her," she said, breaking into sobs.

"I don't have nobody to talk to where I can say just what I feel."

Brice's story quickly spurred others. A woman said her father was murdered; another, like Brice, lost her mother as a small child and felt like an outcast in her family; a truck driver fought pneumonia alone in a hospital for months, lost his apartment and lived out of his truck for a year.

Before the evening ended, one woman in the circle gave Brice her phone number and Brice, in turn, gave the woman who felt unwanted a bear hug.

"It was so great I found somebody I could open up with," she said later. "I've been holding it back so long."

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