His mission was to make neighborhoods better ... and 22 years later, he's done it

Ever since he was young, Christopher Harris always dreamed of improving his neighborhood

As a graduate of Westport High, he can remember asking other kids to come over to play. They wouldn’t, because of the sad state of the Ivanhoe neighborhood in which he lived.

“Growing up, the neighborhood really was just blighted,” Harris said. “I knew something was wrong as a kid about the blighted area, but I didn’t know what. Then I got older and figured out what was wrong, and it made me decide to give back.”

Harris began imagining the impact he could make at age 24. At 27, he began writing his ideas down on paper. Today, at 49, he's a housing locator for Truman Medical Center and the driving force behind a radical transformation of his old Ivanhoe neighborhood.

In the late 1990s, Harris raised $2.5 million in donations to develop the Harris Park Midtown Sports and Activities Center, turning a vacant lot into a park with a basketball court.

He is now working to add a nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course. Core contributors include John Deere and the PGA. Along with courts for basketball, the activities center near 40th and Wayne already boasts track and field, volleyball and mini golf.

“We look to use sports as a catalyst to bring people in and educate them,” Harris said. “We want to be a library. I think we’re basically 5 percent sport and 95 percent education.”

Harris was a key player on Penn Valley’s 1996 NJCAA Division II national championship team in men's basketball. He later enrolled at UMKC and earned his Bachelor of Language Arts degree in 2014. Recently, UMKC awarded Harris its 2018 Alumni Achievement Award for the College of Arts and Sciences.

The honor was an important milestone in his 20-plus years of community service.

“I honestly can’t believe it’s been that long,” Harris said. “It was just like I was supposed to do it. And then, it became life. It’s now a part of the normal routine.”

He says he owes a lot to UMKC.

“When I came to UMKC, I was juggling," he said. "When things got hectic, I was able to handle it.

"Because of finals and the way they teach in college, I was able to handle more. It was just the pressure of handling all the homework and finals at once.”

Harris has been proud to see the property's value increase, and also to watch the reaction on people’s faces as they tour its cleaned-up streets.

He continues to find the process rewarding.

“The biggest challenge is organizing, me staying focused and understanding that money is not the issue,” Harris said. “You continue adding your sports and beautifying the area then see that it really does make a difference.”