Rob Harris once was lost.
That’s why he wants to help others who find themselves in similar situations to get found.
“I was that person,” Harris said. “I grew up in the system. I was born a heroin addict. My mother was a heroin addict. I was basically raised by the system.”
And he struggled with that baggage for years, spending time in jail, fighting to make his way.
Not that long ago, Harris, 44, found himself at a low point.
“At one point I had gotten out of jail — I had done a crime and got busted and I went into jail in the summer,” Harris said. “When I got out, it was winter, and all I had were the same shorts and T-shirt I had when I went in. I had no resources. I had no family. I just felt like I was all alone.”
With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, Harris found himself tempted to turn once again to crime.
“I thought, ‘Well, I can do this crime, and that will solve my immediate problem,'” he said. “But that’s how I got into this mess in the first place. I had to make a change.”
So Harris started thinking about what he could do to improve not only his own life, but the lives of others.
That’s when he came up with the idea for Laverne’s House, a program that targets youth ages 15 to 21 who have been convicted of minor crimes or who are otherwise designated at risk. It provides them with a support system including basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter and emotional support, as well as opportunities for employment, counseling, reestablishing relationships with family and reassimilation into society after release from prison.
The inspiration for the program was Harris’ own mother, who passed away a few years ago.
“I designed the program to have what I feel a mother should provide for her children, the support a mother should give,” Harris said. “Had she not been in the situation she was in, I had to think about what she would have wanted for me.”
With the aid of the Syracuse University Law Clinic and Tucker Missionary Baptist Church, Harris, now a student at Onondaga Community College, began putting his ideas into action in 2008. The program targets high-crime neighborhoods and youth ages 15 to 21 who have been placed on probation or parole or who are skipping school. Their problems include drug addiction, homelessness, lack of education, unemployment and sexual abuse, as well as, in many cases, a criminal history. Only minor offenders — those who have committed misdemeanors or minor felonies carrying a sentence of three years or less — are allowed into program. All candidates are interviewed and approved by Laverne’s House staff, who then set up an individual strategy and program for each person to turn his or her life around. Ten youths are currently involved in the program, which is awaiting approval for 501(c)3 nonprofit status.
While Laverne’s House is currently focused on mentorship activities, Harris hopes to expand into three main areas.
“I’m working on three houses,” he said. “One is Alternatives to Incarceration, where we stipulate to the judge that the person will go into our program and we will work with them and try to get them turned around, and they do that instead of going to jail. Another is our reentry program, and that’s for people getting out of the system.
Kids get out of jail and they have no resources — they have no clothes, no job, no support system, a lot of times they have nowhere to stay. We offer them that support until they can get back on their feet.
“And the last is our outreach program. We’re doing a lot of prevention work in the communities with tutoring and providing support. We’re trying to provide those things that parents can’t or aren’t giving their kids, trying to make a difference in their lives so that they don’t end up in the system in the first place.”
Harris said he hopes he can be an inspiration to the clients of Laverne’s House.
“I’m going to school and I’m trying to make a difference now,” he said. “I pulled myself out of it. I’m the example of what you can do, what you can accomplish. I’m what Laverne’s House stands for.”
For more information about Laverne’s House, contact Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tucker Missionary Baptist Church at 475-8175. Sarah Hall is a freelance writer for the Eagle Newspapers, reach her at email@example.com.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.