by Tyler Schindewolf
"You're out, Jim Bob! You are out, O-U-T, out!" exclaimed Coach, as he ran wild around the infield like one of his campers, holding his glove in the air.
For a moment, the kid looked sad, as if somebody stole his bike. Then, he noticed Coach dancing like a buffoon and cracked a smile. The other campers were stunned.
"How did Coach catch that ball?" asked one shocked camper to another. "I know, he's an old man!" said another.
The next batter, Erica, was a small, quiet little girl who, from the blank expression on her face, appeared to have no interest in softball. She approached home plate in her bright pink outfit, sandals and all, wearing a Hannah Montana backpack. She held the kid-size wooden bat in an unorthodox way, her hands down beside her waist and the top of the bat grazing her chin. She approached the batter's box, stopping directly on the plate and turning to face the pitcher.
Coach ran up to her. "Time out," he said. "What are you going to do standing like that, girl?" He repositioned Erica, showed her how to grip the bat and then ran back to his spot at second base. "Easy out! Everybody move in!" he shouted, with an ornery grin. She wasn't fazed. She knew Coach was just kidding. Even so, she retaliated with a line drive, smacking the first underhanded pitch over second base.
"Ohh wee!" shouted Coach. "Get that ball back to the infield, Jim Bob's!" He turned around and noticed that Erica hadn't moved from the batter's box since shellacking the ball. He was back at it again. "Run to first, girl! Run!" Erica took off to first base, her backpack flapping up and down with each small stride. Just as she was about to reach first, she jumped up and landed on the base with both feet and a huge smile. Before the ball could even reach the pitcher to signify the end of the play, Coach sprinted toward Erica at first base with his mouth wide open. He gave her a giant high-five. "See!" he yelled. "That's how you do it, girl!" Erica carried her smile through her group's next sports station, into lunch and finally into her mom's car at the end of the day.
That's just how Coach operates. Officially, Dennis "Coach" Harris works as the Director of Youth Programs and Nursing Community Outreach for Case Western Reserve University. In addition, he moonlights as the National Youth Sports Program Project Administrator/State Coordinator at Case. It's clear, however, that he is most passionate about his work with NYSP, which he took over in 1996. He has been fully committed to making it the best it can be.
Where It All Began
NYSP is a summer day camp, mostly for underprivileged kids ages 10 to 16. The program is designed to keep children off the streets and place them in a welcoming environment where they can learn and grow. The camp, which attracts anywhere from 500 to 600 campers, costs $25 for Cleveland residents and $125 for non-city residents. Activities are held on the Case Western Reserve campus and runs from the middle of June to the middle of July, with campers arriving at 8 a.m. and leaving at 2 p.m. each day. Traditionally, the campers partake in swimming and a variety of other sports, from badminton to basketball.
Before Coach Harris took over (he was the NYSP basketball coach prior to 1996), the camp was principally geared toward sports, as its title suggests. Harris, however, had bigger ideas for the program when he took over the reins. In 1997 after his first year as director of the program, CWRU was one of four universities in the country to be dubbed the most improved NYSP program. And, in 1998, he introduced math and science to the camp.
"My dream was not to have [NYSP] as just a sports program but to get math and science involved," he said. "I wanted to use the great resources that Case Western Reserve has to offer, to add an academic aspect to [the program]."
The reason, he said, was simple. According to Coach Harris, athletics teach children imperative skills such as teamwork, discipline and cooperation that they will need throughout their life. He believes that these skills are essential in sculpting youth into well-respected, model citizens, but they also are crucial in education as well. "If you take those same attributes to the classroom, they go hand in hand," Harris said.
Now the campers participate in sports during the mornings and educational programming in the afternoons. In addition to the general education subjects like math, science, reading and writing, NYSP campers learn about issues pertaining to nutrition, personal fitness, and drug and alcohol prevention. All the activities are conducted in a fun, hands-on environment designed to spark their interest in learning. Former NYSP counselor Isaac Dukes had nothing but good things to say about Coach Harris and the program.
"Coach is a very passionate man," said Dukes. "His idea of adding an educational facet to NYSP shows the kids that there is more to life than sports. It helps them understand what it means to be a scholar athlete."
The History of Coach Harris
The office of Dennis Harris is a testament to the person that he is. His whole life story is crammed into his second floor office in Yost Hall, which is only about two or three times bigger than a standard office cubicle. Sitting atop the cabinet above his desk is a picture of Coach and his family with Spike Lee, the legendary film director. Next to that is another photo Coach took with a prominent Australian singer, an old newspaper page profiling the seniors on the 1977 Ohio State football team and a photo with Cleveland's Mayor, Frank Jackson.
Coach Harris grew up in the working-class Harvard Lee neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland during the sixties and seventies amid a changing America. At the time, his next-door neighbor was a Hungarian woman who came to the U.S. during the Hungarian Revolution. His best friend, Richard, was white. Coach Harris is African American.
He credits his interest in serving others to three significant people in his life: His mother, his father and his football coach of three years, Woody Hayes. When Coach's dad returned from World War II, he would tell stories of how great people were from all over the world. He heard wonderful stories of Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Africans. "My dad just loved people," said Harris. "He didn't see racism, he just saw people."
Harris attended Cleveland's John F. Kennedy High School where he ran track and field, and played in the marching band. While enrolled at JFK, Harris never got a chance to play his favorite sport because he was cut from the junior varsity football squad before the season started. That didn't deter him, though.
After graduation, he chose to attend college at Ohio State University. Feeling that he had something to prove, his first priority was to walk his way onto the varsity football roster. Shockingly, he made the team, which is hard enough at a regular school, let alone a Division I powerhouse such as Ohio State. From the very start, Buckeye head coach Woody Hayes made him feel welcome and taught him to be a better person.
"With [Woody] it wasn't about the Xs and Os. It was about learning and caring about people," said Harris. "Woody was so far ahead of the game as far as things like integration and community service. And, you learn from people like that."
With the deep-rooted values and love for people he learned from his parents and Woody Hayes, Coach formed a strong desire to do something to help others. When he took over NYSP in 1996, he transferred his love for people into the program.
His goal is to make NYSP at Case Western Reserve the best it can be and a model for the nation, not simply for the kids, but for the community as a whole. He wants to pay the "P.R.I.C.E." (Prevention, Research, Intervention, Compassion, and Education), his acronym for what he believes is crucial to its success.
But ever since federal funding for all NYSP programs was cut, Case Western Reserve has been forced to rely on donations from local corporations, foundations and community members to accommodate the growing number of campers each year. Currently, he is working at the national level to attain federal funding, which would relieve Case and its sponsors and open the door for others to get started.
Overall, Coach has a goal to work with NYSP on a local, state and national level. In addition to running the program here, Coach also serves as the NYSP state coordinator for Ohio, working with the programs at the University of Toledo, the University of Akron and Cleveland State.
"My goal is to get it back on the national level to where we can have the 200 universities that were involved in [NYSP] in the past," he said.
Getting to Know Him
The respect that Dennis Harris has for others is demonstrated during his staff meetings. Each day after the campers leave, the counselors congregate in Leutner Commons where they eat lunch and Harris speaks to the staff. Clad in blue glossy shorts, high white socks and an NYSP shirt, he touched on a few camp-related issues, but mostly praised the counselors for a job well done.
Smiling and enthused, he would make his way around the tables, asking staff members to stand up and share stories about their day and giving them high-fives as they finished. Occasionally, he would get carried away and present more than one "staff member of the week" award, dismissing its importance. Nevertheless, everyone knew that they were appreciated. Coach cares deeply for his campers, his staff and his community as well.
After living in Cleveland for most of his life, he has witnessed the prevalence of substandard housing, the lack of fresh food available to kids, and the high crime rate year in and year out. All of these things have helped Coach realize the importance of helping others.
"I've seen poverty, I've seen sickness, I've seen death, and being able to wake up every day and say you have your health is one of the most important things in life," said Harris. "If I can't share the little brain and the little resources I have with others, then shame on me. That's always been my philosophy."
Case Western Reserve's NYSP is a reflection of Coach Harris. Most of the time, the campers are lively and passionate about their activities, which is the result of Coach's charisma. The campers move to his rhythm as they spend their days in camp bettering themselves and learning from one another about the beauty of people through the lens of academics and sports. It may be through a science class discussion, led by a group of nursing students, or making better meal choices. It may be in the form of a dance aerobics class with "Motion," a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers Scream Team. It may even be sitting in Coach's office, flipping through old, weathered photo albums, awestruck as he tells fascinating stories of his times working at a summer camp in Australia or playing for the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl.
Having Fun at NYSP
If anyone can make learning fun, it's Coach Harris, who considers himself the biggest kid in camp. He stresses the importance of having fun, saying that if he's not having fun, neither are the campers. "Fun is working hard, with everybody working hard together to achieve fun, to achieve learning," said Coach. "You can make learning fun, but you have to work hard at it."
Coach has the liveliness, resourcefulness and charisma to handle any situation. He understands and can relate to the kids he deals with. He is their friend and their leader.
On one occasion, the younger campers were lined up for lunch outside Leutner Commons. It was a blistering hot day and they were waiting to be signaled inside by their counselors. Everyone moaned and complained. Some campers even tried to sneak around the side and climb up a small ledge to slip behind the counselors and into the dining hall. Due to the intense heat, all the campers wanted to do was get inside.
Chris, a bigger, taller boy, decided to cut in front of Eric, a much shorter kid who kept to himself. Because Eric liked to read, Chris teased him. Most days Eric would ignore him, but this day was different.
After Chris cut him in line, Eric simply stared at him with a blank expression on his face. Chris pushed him then flinched at him in a threatening manner. "What? You not gonna do nothing?" he asked. Eric continued to stare directly into Chris' eyes, as if he were frozen. Confused, Chris pushed him again. Eric, the sedentary, quiet kid, clenched his fist and struck Chris right in the gut. No one was more shocked than Chris, who immediately knocked little Eric to the ground and was ready to pounce on him before Coach Harris swooped in from behind and grabbed him. "No. No. No. Not today, Little Jim Bob's," he said, as he carried the two away, one on each arm.
No one knows what Coach told them, but their group counselor never had problems with the two, who became friends that day after their talk with Coach.
Coach Harris has the ability to be Dr. Phil or Grady Sizemore, and command a crowd like a good comedian. Not surprisingly, he is a parent himself, with two children in their early twenties, D.J. and Vantavia.
"I tell my program participants and program staff that I am their biggest fan and it is my job as the person of authority to be their biggest critic," Harris said. "I always tell them that I will never, ever criticize them in public, but I will pull them off to the side and deal with the situation in private."
Coach Harris also knows how to bring the best out in his campers. This was evident with a particular camper named Robert, a thin kid with a high-pitched voice, a distinct laugh, and a blue, adjustable hat that he never parts with. Robert, also known as "Kobe" because of his resemblance to Kobe Bryant of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers, was shy and reserved when he came to camp as a 10-year-old. Now after experiencing six summers at NYSP with Coach Harris, Kobe is social and outspoken. Since he is 17 and too old to attend the camp, he volunteers his time by helping counselors run their activities. Coach, who has grown fond of Kobe through the years, views Kobe as a leader.
NYSP national board advisor Walter Henderson speaks highly of Harris and the program that "others seek to emulate." In a 2008 online news article, Henderson said it's hard to imagine anyone loving kids more than Coach Harris. However, when asked why he has such passion for the program, Harris said kids aren't the only reason.
"It's not about kids, you have to love people," he said. "I was very fortunate that my mom and dad taught me about respect for people. If you love people, working with kids is the easy part."