GiveNF: CHARLES HARRIS AND THE SPIRIT OF VOLUNTEERISM
by Tom Lowe
"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for Others?"
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ask that question about Charles Harris, and the best reply would be, “How much time do you have?”
Just a few years ago, Charles faced a tragedy in his life that caused him to rethink certain outlooks. When he was 22 years old, his mother passed away suddenly. Charles recalls spending a lot of time walking around the city, “just to walk,” as a way of coping with his loss. While on these walks, he felt compelled to open his eyes to see his hometown in a new way - as one that needed him to refocus his energies on giving back, particularly to the youth of Niagara Falls. What he saw on these walks wasn’t what he remembered from his youth. He remembers all the festivals, community centers and nights spent in open gym, not the crime and blight that he was seeing.
Instead of becoming another “thumb banger,” as he called them, Charles decided to jump into community service head first. In the last four years he has built quite the resume of volunteer work. He has volunteered as a cook, and in other capacities, with The Magdalene Project; Community Missions of the Niagara Frontier; Lord’s Day Dinner and The Connection, a teen drop-in center operated by Planned Parenthood - where he also spends time working with the youth to plan events, develop community projects and doing other activities such as boxing.
While positive youth development is certainly the top priority for Charles, he also seems to have a passion for food, given his many hours volunteering as a cook for different organizations. Oh, and did I mentioned he also has a full-time job as a (wait for it) cook at the Sheraton at the Falls?
Recently, he has developed a passion for growing food - leading him to create Project Green Space, a community gardening project, because, “We live in a food desert. We don’t have access to what we need and the food is expensive at stores.” His first community garden is located on Weston Avenue and he is just wrapping up an online fundraising campaign through IOBY (In Our BackYard) as part of his involvement with the Resident Engagement Council, an integral component of the Create A Healthier Niagara Falls Collaborative. He is helping the youth at The Connection to grow their own food, too, while exploring a third urban agriculture venture.
If that wasn’t enough, Charles just added involvement in the city’s Democratic Committee to his list of civic engagement activities. So, when is he running for office? He’s leaving that decision up to a very important group of people, “Whenever the youth tell me they need me, I’m ready.”
As for the future of Niagara Falls, and specifically of the young people in the city, Charles is optimistic. He is excited for the next generation to take over, and he can see them taking big steps in the city, in government, and in activism. He sees talents in the youth he works with on a daily basis, but feels they just need resources to open doors for them. “They can go places,” he said, “but they shouldn’t have to - they should be able to stay here.”
Finally, I asked him why he decided to LiveNF. “Because I breathe NF. I got NF pumping through my veins.” Solid answer.