Dreams to Reality: Alumnus Gives Back to Community

Chris Harris (B.L.A. '14), 2018 UMKC Alumni Award winner and founder of Harris Park, shares insights on transforming his community while helping KC’s youth
Chris Harris at Harris Park
Chris Harris’ (B.L.A. ’14) lifelong dream was to build a park where he could teach people self-esteem and basic life skills through sports and community. Today, that dream is a reality.

Where it began

Having grown up in the Ivanhoe neighborhood, Harris knew that people looked down on the area. The Ivanhoe of the 1980s and 90s was dotted with blighted houses, unkempt lawns and ragged, struggling plant life. The neighborhood had drawn associations with a history of crime and drug violence.

Harris was determined to change the mindset of outsiders — and the mindset of the people who lived there. No one was working for change, so he realized it would have to start from within.

In 1994, Harris enrolled at Penn Valley Community College. For a writing assignment, he focused on his dream: to clean up his community and teach the basics of life through sports. Putting the dream on paper made it seem real. Another event during his two years at Penn Valley convinced him it was possible.

In 1996, Harris led the unheralded Penn Valley basketball team to the NJCAA Division II National Championship. That gave him the confidence to believe he could achieve his dream. And he’s certainly come a long way since, receiving the College of Arts and Sciences Alumni Achievement Award at the 2018 UMKC Alumni Awards.

Ryan Stokes Memorial Court at Harris Park

Making the dream real

For Harris, the hard work quite literally began at home. He started by tearing down his childhood home on Wayne Avenue and began the process of transforming the property into a community park and events center. He wanted to have an accessible park that made resources available to urban youth who lacked access to certain sports like golf, because they couldn’t afford a membership or lessons to learn.

Next, Harris bought the plots of land that covered both sides of Wayne Avenue between East 40th and East 41st Street. In the beginning, he was out there alone, doing the hard labor and getting his hands dirty on the grounds. Slowly, through networking, fundraising and building relationships and partnerships, he was able to raise $2.5 million to develop the park.

“All of it just fell right into place like a book,” Harris says. “That’s just how it happened, and it just kept growing.” 

Family, friends and community volunteers helped along the way, but much of what is now Harris Park has been a one-man venture.

Today, Harris Park includes a compact 12-hole pitch-and-putt golf course and basketball court — all free for anyone to use. Harris Park has taken years to develop, with more changes still to come. Some plans have been put on hold since the pandemic hit, as the park has remained in the construction zone. But the plan is to open and operate fully in the spring.

In the meantime, Harris is constructing a stage in one of the buildings to offer a space for people to rent and hold events. There are also plans for a clubhouse with restrooms and a golf pro shop with merchandise, gear and snacks available.

“My heart and soul is in the beautification,” Harris says. “When I first started this, saying I was going to use sports as a catalyst to clean up our neighborhood and educate our neighborhood, I didn’t know that the place itself was going to be educational.”  

The motivation behind it all 

Sports have taught Harris how to navigate life’s challenges. He learned the most from the game of basketball. Harris knew if he did the little things to put teammates in their comfort zone, they were all going to play better. Once he realized this formula and applied it to his life, winning games led to winning championships — and doors began to open.

For Harris, it’s still all about putting people in their comfort zone so they can be the best version of themselves. He notes when people feel comfortable, they perform better and more effectively. Likewise, by creating opportunities and resources for people to come play a round of golf, shoot some hoops or simply hang out at the park, it creates a space to put people at ease and find refuge in a place that once offered very little.

“Can you imagine how many people have that ability, to do something, but don’t have the inspiration and desire to do it?” Harris says. “I’m trying to put them in that comfort zone, so they can do those things that they already have the power, strength and knowledge to do.” 

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Published: Apr 18, 2022

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