By Brandon Mercer
On Thursday night, an NFL team representative will come to the podium at the 2021 NFL Draft and announce they are selecting for their ranks a once homeless man who spent part of his childhood sharing a small room at GRIP with his family of seven.
“It’s hard living in California, so we got evicted a lot as a family,” said star running back Najee Harris. “We bounced around a lot, slept in cars, slept in homeless shelters. Back then it was more like just surviving the day, getting through the hard times.”
“I was homeless with all five of them, packing them up, taking them where we had to go to get to the next spot,” said Harris’s mother, Tianna Hicks.
Just a 12-year-old at the time, Harris spent time in various shelters from the Bay Area to Seattle, but something changed along the way. The family got a respite from the anxiety of getting their next meal. A literal shelter from the cold Bay Area fog. Harris, his older four siblings, his father and mother all got a break.
Harris turned that into his big break: breaking tackles, breaking records, and breaking barriers. Within a few years, Harris stunned coaches in his debut at Antioch High School, becoming the top collegiate recruit in the country, and the subject of a San Francisco Chronicle special report. After signing on with the nation’s most dominant college program, he would become a two-time national champion, even breaking Alabama’s rushing record.
“This is an example of what can happen with faith and a little bit of a helping hand,” said Kathleen Sullivan, executive director of GRIP. “It is such a powerful message to the homeless everywhere that anything is possible even when going through a phase of homelessness.”
The football legend returned to GRIP for the first time in April, touring his family’s old room and touching the bunk beds where he had slept just 11 years earlier. He then joined hands with GRIP workers and residents in a prayer circle to call for empowering the disenfranchised community and the continued success of GRIP and the clients it serves.
“Being in a stable place just for a short time can make all the difference in the world.” Sullivan said. “The humility of Najee and his mother Tianna Hicks speaks volumes about how this experience shaped his character.”
Harris is now looking at how he can give back to the shelter that gave him so much.
“It’s an amazing feeling to have someone that was struggling achieve such heights,” said GRIP Staff Member Lori Robertson, who worked with Harris years ago. “I want to see all families have the success of a Najee. I’m happy for him but want success for all our families.”
“He did not let his situation dictate his future,” said Shelter Manager Siu Laulea, who also worked with Harris. “It makes me feel proud and makes me enjoy my job more because I know I made a difference in someone’s life.”
For over five decades, the Greater Richmond Interfaith Project (GRIP) has aimed to eradicate homelessness and end hunger by providing services that include homeless diversion interventions, emergency family shelter placement, housing readiness and navigation, daily meal program, access to basic needs and brokerage case management services in the West Contra Costa County Region.
“Providing stability and structure for families and especially the children at the hardest time in their life can change the life of a family,” Sullivan said. “Food, shelter, encouragement and planning for the future takes time many families don’t get. A time to save money and put yourself in a better position and rest from the trials of life are also benefits of temporary shelter life.
Sullivan added, “The GRIP organization also gives our community the opportunity to be changed by expressing generosity. Giving is a powerful healer for our communities.”
GRIP may not have many opportunities to support a local sports superstar on the way to the NFL draft, but it will continue to provide stability for families that deserve a break. To help us continue that work please donate today.
The above piece originally published on the Greater Richmond Interfaith Group (GRIP) website.