“Mindful” Corps Experience Helps Young Man Overcome and Like a Phoenix, Fly Toward His Dreams

The following story showcases one of The Corps Network’s 2015 Award Winners. Harris Cox will be recognized as a 2015 Corpsmember of the Year at The Corps Network National Conference in February. 

A staff member at Oakland, California’s Civicorps writes that “Harris Cox came to Civicorps at 21 years old with low self esteem and a lack of trust, seeking a community where he could thrive… We watched a young man who struggled with anger, insecurities and pain, blossom into a confident and productive member of our community.”

Pain plays a large part in Harris’s story, but his Civicorps experience helped renew his spirit, and taught him how to use that pain to help others.

“Before I joined the Corps I was moving from pillow to pillow without a stable place to lay my head,” says Harris. “I was mad at the world and myself because I didn’t understand my life. At the age of six I was the victim of a crime that left me with severe burns over my neck, arm, and legs and was in an extensive medically induced coma to deal with the pain and skin grafts that had to be done. After this I felt like society alienated me because of my scars and I had to fight for respect in order to feel normal.

As I grew up I was doing crimes and was in and out of jail.  I was weird about money because it was so hard to survive and I was just trying to feed myself and my family. At first my family consisted of several of my brothers and sisters (all together I have 16 brothers and at least 9 sisters who I have relationships with), and then I had a son to also care for and worry about. The last time I went to jail I was in for three years and I told myself, ‘That’s it.  I have to change. I have to find myself and find that man I wish my dad would’ve been or would’ve shown me.’ What made me want to become a Corpsmember was that all my life drugs had played a huge role in my family and I wanted to show my Grandmother that I could break the pattern, not throw my life away, and allow her to rest in peace. My mom never passed middle school because of drugs. My father didn’t care who or what hurt me because drugs took over… Looking back I can say that not once did either of my parents ever tell me from their hearts that they loved me. The day I cut my son’s umbilical cord, I vouched that every single day I would tell him I love him because I know that is all a child needs to begin. My son is now five years old and I have a one year old daughter and I am proud to say they hear I love them every day.”

During Harris’s time at Civicorps, he earned numerous perfect attendance awards and “hard hitter” awards, which recognize a strong commitment to work. He says that he gained a lot of job skills, and in particular enjoyed learning how to use chainsaws. He cut down trees as part of the conservation work he did with his peers. The impact of seeing the projects before and after they were completed made an impression on Harris. He learned how to work with people from different backgrounds and the valuable lesson that in his own words, “you sometimes just ‘gotta gulp it’ and be one with your job.” But perhaps what made the biggest impact on Harris was an internship he had with a CiviCorps partner called Mindful Impact. It’s an organization that helps adults and young people more intentionally process their emotions to alleviate stress and personal trauma while improving their personal health.

A staff member at Civicorps says that “Harris’s solid foundation of dedication and academic diligence, along with his quiet introspective spirit, naturally steered him toward an internship opportunity with Mindful Impact… Being a burn victim due to an act of hate, he understands trauma at its deepest level… Through his internship Harris gained a greater understanding of how the mind works and how we become reactionary when trauma is triggered. His connection to this knowledge and the benefit he has personally gained from the practice have allowed him to work with students young and old in an authentic manner. He returns to Civicorps regularly to introduce the topic to the new student cohorts and because Corpsmembers respond so well to Harris and his presentation of mindfulness, he was a guest speaker at the Health Summit… He spent time assisting with burn counseling alongside his own burn counselor and it is perhaps these experiences that led him on the path toward becoming a Mindfulness Coach.”

Harris says that “The Corps gave me a mirror and told me that I’m beautiful inside and out.  This happened because teachers kept telling me that there was something positive about me that I didn’t want to see… The one thing I’ll never forget about Civicorps is that they understood my pain and accepted me for who I am. I never had to force myself to fit in nor was I forced to talk about my past and my physical and emotional scars. Everyone waited for me to open up; they waited until I was comfortable to talk about being burned and in a coma for six years. And when I did open up they didn’t judge, they cried with me… Civicorps became my pillow and now I don’t have to keep moving from place to place I just have to keep learning and remember how far I have come and how far I still want to go.”

Harris earned his high school diploma in June and also received three AmeriCorps education awards for his service while enrolled in Civicorps. He currently attends Merritt and Laney Community Colleges with the goal of earning an Associate in Arts degree. He wants to then transfer to a university to continue his education.

Harris also currently volunteers with the Mosaic Project, a nonprofit in Oakland that works with fourth and fifth graders to teach them about diversity and conflict resolution. In other words, it’s a role that plays to Harris’s strengths. Civicorps staff hear highly positive reviews from their counterparts at the Mosaic Project. Harris visits schools to talk to students, but also serves as a recurring volunteer Cabin Leader. He serves as the primary adult leading a group of six to eight students as they have a weeklong experience at the Mosaic Project’s outdoor school.

Harris says that learning about mindfulness “helps victims of trauma understand what they are dealing with and to be more relaxed in order not to have immediate or negative reactions and actions. I teach this method of relaxation to kids.. and I think starting out building these skills at a young age will reduce the percentage of youth going to jail… We talk about behavior and understanding how to help one another with pain and how to heal from pain.”

Harris is currently one of the Civicorps’ Corpmembers featured in an advertising campaign around Oakland that uses posters, and even a large billboard to recruit new young people into the program. One poster features Harris alone, and in large type the poster says “I make Oakland look good.” Now that you know Harris’s story, it’s probably hard to disagree.

Harris says that “I have two passions, one is for flying and I have a dream of getting my pilot’s license, the other is to be a role model for youth. I would like to be some type of social work counselor or juvenile probation officer to help youth stay away from jail or even worse, prison.  I want to keep youth from being exposed to that negative world. I am going to continue in college and hope to get my Masters Degree in psychology so that I can help people at a deeper level. Really, I am inspired to go to college no only for myself but because I have friends who passed and who wanted to go to college so now I feel I need to do it for them. Ultimately, if I don’t get my pilot’s license it will be okay because I know I’ll be flying kids towards their dreams and that will be just fine with me.”