"It scares me when you don't come home," the younger girl, Nichole, then 6, told Pepe.
Ten years after she quit drugs, Pepe, a high school dropout, is a graduate student. Yesterday, Pepe, 46, received a master's degree in social work from Widener University.
"That's freakin' awesome for a dust-head who should be dead," she said at her Prospect Park home last week. "If I can do this, anyone can do this."
Pepe plans to open a halfway house for women struggling with addiction, and she already is eyeing a property in Darby for the location.
John Giugliano, a Widener professor who has worked with Pepe, said he didn't doubt that she'd find a way to get what she wanted.
"She's the type that makes up her mind and goes forward," he said.
Pepe's daughters - Danielle Kline, 26, and Nichole Giorno, 17 - are thrilled for her and glad the long days without their mother are over, at least for a while.
"It's going to be a great stress off my mother's shoulders," said Kline, who designs electrical systems in Philadelphia.
Pepe's older sister, Sandra Stevenson, 57, of Delaware, said she had felt like a second mom to Pepe, trying to steer her straight over the years. Now that Pepe can take care of herself, Stevenson is relieved.
"Now she's not my baby sister anymore," Stevenson said. "Now we're just sisters."
Pepe grew up as one of four children in Ridley and neighboring towns.
Her mother was a waitress, sometimes working two jobs after her first husband died.
The day of the attack, Pepe and a friend were walking home along Chester Pike.
A car full of young men pulled up to them, and they started talking.
Pepe and her friend didn't know the teenagers, but they seemed to have mutual friends. So when the teens offered to take the girls home, Pepe thought she was safe.
The young men dropped off Pepe's friend, but drove past where Pepe lived.
They took her behind a building somewhere in Ridley, she said.
She kicked and screamed and bit them, and honked the horn when she could reach it, she said. The oldest of the three, who was 18, raped her, she said.
"I just didn't believe people could be that way," she said. "It kind of ruined my illusion of life."
Pepe reported the matter to the police, and the three were tried, although one was a juvenile, she said.
Pepe dropped out of Interboro Senior High School. The next two decades of her life, she stayed clean for an extended period only during her two pregnancies, she said.
When pregnant with Nichole, she got her GED.
After Nichole's birth, Pepe held a steady job as a medical billing assistant. But she spent weekends away from her family, leaving her children with relatives or baby-sitters so she could use drugs.
In March 1999, when Pepe had been missing and her family drove to pick her up at an apartment where she had spent the weekend, Nichole told her mother how scared she had been.
"That's what stopped me," Pepe said. "That was my first day clean."
Kline said that was when they got their mom back.
Recovering from drug abuse, Pepe related easily to others experiencing the same situation.
A friend, Rich Mollica, helped her find work at the Mirmont Treatment Center in Lima, and Pepe worked first in admissions and later as a clinical aide with adolescents.
"You're meeting people for the first time. They're in crisis. They're in pain," she said. "And I just have a knack for helping people and calming them down and helping them, to say: 'It's going to be OK. We're going to get through this. We'll help you through this.' "
Mollica, who was attending Springfield College in Delaware, persuaded Pepe to go, too.
Pepe graduated with a bachelor's degree in human services in 2007.
"I blew my own mind. Like, 'Oh, my God, I can do this!' " Pepe said. "Once I realized how good I could do, I said, 'I'm going to get a master's, man.' "
Pepe works at Holcomb Behavioral Health and as a social worker in the William Penn School District.
Her problems haven't disappeared, though. When her mother died of lung cancer in 2001, staying sober was hard, she said.
And long days of work, classes, and interning have left her exhausted and sick at times.
She has had several operations, including the removal of her gallbladder this year, but still made it to school.
Once, Giugliano noticed Pepe had a hospital band on her wrist; Pepe had left treatment for intestinal problems at the hospital to get to class.
"I told them, 'This is taking too long,' " she said.
Pepe said she had wasted too much time high. She wants to fill her days making up for lost time.
"Once you get started and you realize you can accomplish something, there's no stopping," she said.
Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 610-627-0352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.