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Fostering Hope

His own hard childhood motivates Chris Harris to help empower children

Chairing the board of directors at the local Boys & Girls Clubs isn’t simply a matter of agendas, minutes and financial reports for Chris Harris. It’s a chance to touch lives through a program that saved his.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the Boys & Girls Clubs,” says the 47-year-old Harris, who assumed his leadership role on the board in February.

For Harris, empowering young people and providing them with stability and opportunity are all in a day’s work, much of it motivated by a desire to give back. In his day job at Western Michigan University, he directs a program for students aging out of foster care.

Harris’ upbringing in Raleigh, N.C., was filled with instability and trauma. An alcoholic and mostly absent mother and an absent father left him without structure or guidance from a very young age.

His father was out of the picture almost immediately after his birth. When Harris was a teen, though, his father reappeared in an encounter that was awkward and short-lived, Harris says. A man he barely recognized showed up and told his mother that he wanted to spend time with his son and that he would be back the following Saturday to pick him up. He never came.

Harris’ mother came from a middle-class environment, Harris says. “My grandfather was in the military, and my uncle was a professor at Howard (University).” But his mother was unable to get past some traumatic experiences she had as a youth, Harris says, and she rebelled early, had him at a young age and turned to alcohol.

“Until I was 6, my mom was my best friend,” says Harris, who was an only child. “Then alcohol became the most important thing in her life.”

Harris and his mother moved from place to place, with his mom changing men — many of them abusive to both her and her son — just as often. Harris recalls staying in rooms without plumbing that were not much bigger than a closet. “We had two buckets: one for washing and one for a toilet. I remember the feeling of rodents crawling over me in bed. Many nights I went to sleep listening to my mom have sex with one of her boyfriends — if she was even there at all.”

Harris found some solace with his grandfather, but his grandfather held out hope that Harris’ mom would turn her life around and dropped the boy back at his home, insisting that his mother take responsibility.

Harris began attending what was then the Wake County Boys Club at 6 years old, coming to spend nearly every day there until the time he was in college. “They taught me about leadership, accountability and honesty,” he says. “They gave me a sense of identity and peace. I could be myself.”

A program director at the club, Ron Williams, became a father figure to Harris. “It was unconditional love,” Harris says. “If I was absent a day at the club, he’d come check on me. He’d bring me food if we had nothing at home.” Williams was inducted into the Boys & Girls Club Hall of Fame in 2012.

Another huge influence in Harris’ life was Ralph Capps, who was then and still is the executive director for the Wake County club.

“Ron and Ralph taught me that I had a choice about the direction of my life,” Harris says. “They gave me the opportunity to see life through a different lens.”

In the fourth grade, Harris came to a pivotal point. He hadn’t seen his mom in weeks and found her passed out at the bus stop before school. As he watched kids step over his mom to get on the bus, he decided he too had to step over her — both physically and metaphorically — to pursue his education.

At the club, Williams and Capps kept the young Harris focused on academics, encouraging him to pursue leadership roles. Harris became involved in the Keystone Club, a leadership development program that promotes academic success, career readiness and community service. He entered the Youth of the Year competition and won. Two years later, he won again.

Harris encouraged two of his cousins, who had lost their parents in an accident, to join the Boys Club as well. One went on to win the National Youth of the Year award while the other later won the Regional Youth of the Year award. Both have gone on to successful professional careers. “It’s amazing what the club has done for me and my family,” Harris says.

When he was 16, Harris left home and went into an independent living situation where he learned to take care of himself, working with social workers to create a budget and learn life skills. He kept his grades up and played varsity soccer for four years in high school and was admitted to East Carolina University. One of the club’s board members helped him with the costs, and Harris also joined the ROTC program, which led him to a career as an Air Force officer.

While in the Air Force, Harris became a foster parent. Although he hadn’t been in foster care, he knew what it was like to grow up essentially without parents.

“I was working for the base commander, and a local foster-care program was looking to partner with the military. I was the first one to sign up.”

Harris, who was 27 at the time, felt he could relate to the 16-year- old who became his foster son. It wasn’t long before he took in another child, this one a high school senior from his church. Harris has cared for about 20 foster children to date and says it has been a very rewarding experience. “I use the lessons I learned from the Boys & Girls Club with the kids I raise,” he says.

His experiences as a foster parent also have brought him to his current position as director of WMU’s Seita Scholars program, which provides scholarships, resources and advocacy for WMU students coming from foster-care systems. The program, started by WMU faculty members Yvonne Unrau, Mark Delorey and Penny Bundy, is named for John Seita, a three-time alumnus of WMU and author of several books on growing up in the foster-care system. The program provides a campus home for more than 160 WMU students.

“It’s more than just tuition assistance,” Harris says of the program. “We help with a lot of the day-to-day things that many students take for granted or don’t have to worry about, like how to budget finances to get through the semester. A lot of parents move their students in with moving vans. Many of the Seita Scholars don’t have anything to bring, not even sheets or pillows. They can come here for items you might not even think about, like towels.”

The Seita Scholars program is part of the Center for Fostering Success, an organization with a mission to improve college graduation and career achievement rates among youth and young adults aging out of the foster-care system. WMU’s Center for Fostering Success is the largest of its kind in the country and received the National Youth Thrive Award in 2013 from the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), a national organization based in Washington, D.C.

It was at a holiday party two years ago at Harris’ home that John Whyte, then board president of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo, saw Harris’ Boys & Girls Clubs Hall of Fame plaque. He asked Harris to join the board. Then, at the start of this year, Harris was asked to chair the board.

Harris hopes his story will help those who may be going through the kind of experiences he did. “They may not know there are options,” he says. “If I didn’t share, I’d take away the opportunity for God to reach other people.”
Religion is important to Harris and is one of the reasons he was able to reconcile with his mother. She has been sober now for almost 30 years, but her years of battling alcoholism have left her physically incapable of taking care of herself. So Harris has taken on this role.
“I choose to do it because of my faith and because it’s the right thing to do,” he says simply.

Harris is still active in foster parenting. In 2012, he and his husband of nine years, Dan Wimsatt, adopted two kids who had been in foster care and are now 6 and 11. Recently, a former foster child also has come back into his life, staying with Harris and Wimsatt during a transition to independent living.

From his endeavors with the Seita Scholars Program and the Boys & Girls Clubs and as a parent, Harris has gained a perspective that few people have. And few would want to go through what he did to get it. But what’s important to Harris is that he shares this perspective so that young people throughout the community will benefit.

“Having a positive impact on our youth is why I do the work that I do, and it’s why I love it.”

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“Having a positive impact on our youth is why I do the work that I do, and it’s why I love it.”
— Chris Harris