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'Charity begins at home'

Expat parents, kid sisters partner in outreach Foundation

BY TANESHA MUNDLE Observer staff reporter mundlet@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, August 22, 2012    

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WHEN it comes to giving back, age and size are certainly not requirements. All it takes is a generous and compassionate heart.

This rings true for founders of the Harris Family Vision Foundation, 17-year-old Nekhidia Harris -- who stands at a little over two feet as a result of a disability that has not yet been diagnosed -- and her 14-year-old sister Kimberly -- a motivational speaker and minister.

The international charity organisation which was officially founded in 2011 is based in New York, home of the Harris family, and provides assistance to Jamaica, Haiti and St Vincent.

Jamaica, however, receives the bulk of the assistance, which includes a breakfast programme at Enfield Primary in Westmoreland; a lunch programme at Redwood Primary in St Catherine; and scholarships, tuition and back-to-school assistance programmes in Manchester, St Catherine, Hanover, and Kingston & St Andrew. The other two Caribbean islands are beneficiaries of medical supplies and clothing.

The Harrises have also contributed to the parish of St Ann where, on the occasion of Marcus Garvey's birthday last Friday, it opened a clinic valued at around $1.5 million. The facility is located in Madras and will be operated by the Ministry of Health.

According to the sisters, the foundation started as result of the work of their Jamaican-born parents, Michael and Dasline Hamilton Harris, who have been helping needy Jamaicans over the past 20 years.

"My mom and dad always come back here and in their hometown and give out back-to-school stuff, and as we got older my sister and I decided to start a foundation to give back to the community; and, like my dad says, charity begins at home," said Nekhidia, whose confidence and cheer belie her stature.

The honour roll student, who her parents say is a miracle child, will be starting college in September. She said the experience working in the foundation has been wonderful, as she is not only helping to make a difference in the lives of others, but also gets "to see a lot of kids in different situations and learn about a lot of kids in the island".

When asked how she balanced the foundation, her studies, and volunteer work in her community, Nekhidia said her ability to do so always baffles her friends. The answer though, she said, is that she has mastered the art of multitasking. That, plus the amount of confidence she has in her abilities.

"If you do not have confidence in yourself you are twice defeated in the race of life," she said, reciting her guiding philosophy, a quote from Marcus Garvey.

For her part, Kimberly sees her work with the foundation as an avenue for motivating and uplifting others.

"We strongly believe in the power of Christian principles and the value of education as it empowers children which (in turn) leads them to empower their communities and others," Kimberly said.

Asked if they were not too young for the task, Kimberly was quick to point out that the Biblical Samuel started his work at age seven.

"It doesn't matter how or when you start. As long as you are doing the Lord's work and are serving him, size doesn't matter," said the 10th grader and aspiring psychologist.

Kimberly, who has already earned several educational and community service awards and who was named the 2010 Youth of the Year recipient, said although the reception has always been good in Jamaica, "A lot of people are always surprised that we are not white. They expect multimillionaire white people coming to throw away money that they have to burn, but we don't have a lot of money. (It's) through the contributions of our supporters we are able to help people in need."

The foundation raises most of its funds from events such as concerts, walk-a-thons and prayer breakfasts. It usually does about 11 different outreach activities in the island each year in one or two visits, but due to the excessive cost associated with setting up the health clinic in Madras, Hamilton Harris, the foundation's treasurer, said this year's slate was reduced to six.

It said the decision for the clinic was borne out of a visit to the community which made the team realise there was a great need for it.

"In that area people still have home births and still carry water from a well on donkey's back to their houses and persons in adjoining communities have to go a far way for medical attention, and if we can cut back on infections and save people's live that would be a great help", Kimberly said.

In the meantime, Kimberly said: "We are hoping to launch another clinic after we have seen how this one goes, and we are also hoping in the near future to do some more outreach around the world."

The foundation, which is headed by the girls' father Michael, was on Friday involved in one of its back-to-school outreach events in the Franklyn Town community, where it hosted a fun day for children at Franklyn Town Church of God. It also distributed school bags, shoes and stationery.

The foundation has so far hosted two back-to-school programmes in the community and has fallen in love with it, according to Michael.

"It is a nice community to work with and we all look forward to it as we are always well received; and when God was walking the earth he didn't go to visit the rich people," he said, noting that there are a lot of children who are in need in the community.

According to him, charity has always been in his blood as he too grew up in a home where giving was practised and he is not surprised that his daughters have started to follow in his footsteps.

"I teach them to give because sometimes they have to see how other kids live to see that the things that they murmur or fuss about is what other kids would wish for. They have choices and some kids don't even have the basic things, so as they grew up they realise that they have to give back and so, they started the foundation," Michael said.

"From I was born I have a compassionate heart, and I grew up seeing my parents giving back and so I took it up; and I made a pledge when I left Jamaica that I would continue to give back to my country. I would like to see my country strive," he added.

For his wife, Dasline, it is a joy to see how their daughters have embraced the spirit of giving without being pushed. It humbles her.

Judith Spencer, a friend of Kimberly who volunteered her time to travel with the family from New York to assist, said she found the work of her friend and sibling inspiring and believes that the foundation is doing a great job.

"I think this is a good thing, and I think there should be more people doing things like this not only in Jamaica, but going to other countries to spread the gospel and (distribute) things," Spencer said.

Before the team departs the island tomorrow, it plans to make a donation to some of the families who were evicted from premises on Duke Street, Kingston last week. It will be the last in a series of events which included health and back-to-school fairs at Clarksonville All-Age School in Cave Valley, St Ann, as well as services at Fletcher's Grove and Montpelier Baptist where both sisters ministered -- Nekhidia through dance and Kimberly through the spoken Word.

Earlier activities included a back-to-school fair at Newport Open Bible Church in Manchester and a fun day at Strathmore Gardens Children's Home in Spanish Town, St Catherine.

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