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The Young-Harris Family: Creating Positive Change for Themselves, Their Community, and the Environment

Written by Kristin Nelson
    Friday, 05 April 2013
The Young-Harris Family: Creating Positive Change for Themselves, Their Community, and the Environment

When the Young-Harris family welcomed me into their house on a cold Saturday morning, Donald and Donovin politely greeted me at the door. Golden sunlight streamed into their warm, cozy home, and they offered me a seat on their couch. Within moments, their mother Katrina Young-Harris walked into the living room where I sat with her boys, and she shared a smile so big and warm that I instantly felt “at home” with this family.

Katrina has a certain energy and honesty about her that is simultaneously comforting and energizing, and her sons exude a maturity beyond their years. That morning, I sat back and listened in awe to their colorful and inspiring story of engagement with the Urban Ecology Center. I felt very proud to be part of an organization that has been such a significant positive force for growth in their lives. Even more powerful, though, are the ways that the Young-Harris family have shaped the growth and impact of the Urban Ecology Center in their own neighborhood.

In keeping with their polite and gentle demeanor, Donald and Donovin walked me to my car at the request of their mother. I thought about their impact on their neighborhood as I drove through Washington Park, and reflected upon what I had just learned about this family. Donald, Donovin, and Katrina are, without a doubt, agents of change whose collective influence expands well beyond their household.

Change at Home

Donovin maple sugaring 209x250

Donald, age 14, and Donovin, age 12, were introduced to the Urban Ecology Center through their previous school, Westside Academy. The first program they participated in was the Young Scientists Club, where they quickly learned to compost, fish, and canoe in Washington Park. Donald and Donovin also participate regularly in the Washington Park Branch’s Food Fridays program, wherein they grow and harvest produce from community gardens, prepare vegetarian meals, and share the recipes with their families at home. I asked Katrina how she felt about this:

“I love it! They have changed how I cook, and I’m making the stir fry recipe they gave me at least once a week.” According to Katrina, there are not a lot of places to buy healthy food within walking distance of their home. “After the boys taught me the stir-fry recipe, I sometimes walk to the Chinese Grocery store on North Avenue to find ingredients. It’s opened me up to a whole new way of cooking,” she explained.

Change in the Neighborhood

 “I have such a strong feeling of trust in the Center,” Katrina shared. “The staff are great role models for them, and that can be hard to find. Especially Erick (WP Community Program Coordinator); he even calls to check up on the boys. I know they really care.”

As the family shared more, I started to see the ways that Donald, Donovin, and Katrina became proactive in their neighborhood through engagement with the Center, but also through their own mindful actions. Katrina explained that when the boys’ attitude about the park began to shift, hers did too.

“They started taking ownership of the neighborhood and park,” she explained. “and they stopped kids from fighting and stealing canoes from the Center. I used to be scared, as a single woman, to walk through the park alone. They even convinced me to get out into the park, and we organized bike rides with other community members. Now, it hurts my heart that more people don’t use it. This neighborhood would be a better place to live if all of the neighbors cared about the environment.”

I smiled to myself, as it is clearly evident that Donald and Donovin are now actively role modeling kindness -- to others and the environment -- for community members of all ages. 

Change that Grows Paths into the Future

In line with their humble nature, it was well into our conversation before the boys unveiled their groundbreaking work in youth-driven environmental science research. With the Young Scientists Club, Donald, Donovin and seven other participants created an experiment based on their own interest in native birds. Their curiosity led them to compare the presence and activity of birds on Washington Park’s lagoon shoreline with those on the lagoon’s island. After analyzing their data in ebird software, the group found that more birds were active on the shoreline and drew several viable conclusions. Because of the integrity and professionalism of their research, they were invited to present at the University of Minnesota’s Driven to Discover Conference last winter. This spring, they presented their work again at the Statewide Meeting of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative in Wisconsin Dells to represent youth engagement in community science. When asked about their experiences in a professional environment, Donald shrugged humbly and said, “It was fun. I liked meeting the other scientists.”

Turns out, the Harris boys are no strangers to professional-level presentations. Last year, they supported other Young Scientist Club members in presenting a proposal to Lead 2 Change, an organization that provides grants for youth-led community service projects in Milwaukee. Not surprisingly, their proposal was funded, which resulted in the Center’s Washington Park Branch receiving a new 560 gallon fish tank used for research and preservation of the lagoon’s fish population.

Pretty amazing, right? After hearing all of this, I took a pause and said, “Where do you dream you will be in the next five years?” The boys smiled slightly and looked at each other. Katrina jumped in, “He [Donald] wants to go to Harvard, and he [Donovin] wants to be at Yale. And I totally support these dreams.”

Of course, the Urban Ecology Center supports this family’s dreams in any way we can. Washington Park Branch Manager Willie Karadis sums up this sentiment nicely:

"It is so fun to watch Donald and Donovin grow both physically and mentally. I had them stand back to back with me and they are just above my shoulders and I'm 6'2"; they are getting so big.  But more than that, they are both kind, thoughtful, creative and inquisitive young men who have a hunger for learning and a natural kindness to their souls which I truly appreciate.  We are so fortunate to have met them and I look forward to helping them for the rest of their lives."

However, something tells me that as the Harris boys continue to create positive change for themselves, others, and their environment throughout their bright futures, the Urban Ecology Center will learn more from them than they learn from us.

Katrina recently brought along her mother to help with a volunteer mailing event, and she serves as a Reception Volunteer every Thursday at Washington Park.  "She is awesome and the guests and members that she interacts with love her," says Terrance Davis,
Washington Park Visitor Services Assistant.

"I love the conversations I have with visitors, and I especially love feeling like a part of the organization. The Volunteer Appreciation event was wonderful. I met so many different people and the staff did funny performances to thank us. I really felt like I belonged there." -Katrina

The Young-Harris Family's Membership and participation in Young Scientists Club and Summer Camps are provided by generous donations to the Urban Ecology Center's scholarship program. To provide support for more hard-working families with incredible potential to make a difference in their communities, click here.

Kristin Nelson

Kristin Nelson

Kristin is the Development Systems and Membership Specialist at the Urban Ecology Center and is deeply inspired by the generosity of our members, donors, and volunteers. She is delighted and humbled everyday to see kids grow, learn and heal through the Center’s programs. When she’s not at the Center, Kristin is working on her MS in Community Psychology, painting, and playing and laughing with her son.

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