Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Monique Harris - A Great American Who's Saving "The Least of These"

If you ask Monique Harris how she came to found Southern Nevada Children First, she’ll give you two answers.  First, she’ll tell you that her entire life has prepared her for this role.  And second, she’ll tell you that when her dream for serving others was shattered by unexpected bureaucratic fiat, she turned that crisis over to God. He opened the door to a new way she could serve homeless and at-risk teen-aged girls – and their babies – rescuing them in ways she’d never even imaged were possible. 

However, she’ll also tell you that founding and leading Southern Nevada Children First was not what she had in mind for her life – not as a child growing up on the streets of Los Angeles, not as a single mom putting herself through college, and not as a young and inspired social worker looking to create a completely different way of helping people.

What she won’t tell you is that, while this was never what she imagined for her life’s work, she can’t imagine a more fulfilling path for herself, and for the hundreds of young girls – and their babies – who she’s already helped.

Monique Harris has an Associate’s Degree, a Bachelor’s Degree and a Masters of Social Work Degree.  Educationally, she has all the qualifications that a person in her position is expected to have.  However, few people realize that she was well into her adulthood – and that she was a single mother supporting herself and her two children – before she put her mind into earning those degrees and changing her life.

She grew up hard in the tough inner-city LA neighborhood of Inglewood.  However, she had two benefits many girls from her neighborhood never had. First, she grew up in a two-parent home – though her father was sometimes in jail – and after 61 years, her parents are still married.  But Monique also had another gift – a mother who was grounded in God’s Word, a woman of steadfast faith who did all she could to set Monique on the right path.  For more than a decade, her mother might have despaired that her efforts were “seeds that fell on rocky ground,” but in the end, it turned out that Monique had listened to her mother, deep in her soul where it really mattered.

Growing up, her father was very “street-oriented,” and while he did his best to shelter his wife and daughter from that life, Monique’s brothers were more or less brought into the “family business,” the in-the-streets way of life.  As a teen-ager, though she did finish high school, Monique decided that her father’s and brother’s lifestyle was more exciting than her mother’s. She got involved in a fast life, on the streets in the wrong neighborhood.  To her credit, she tried college, but it didn’t take.  She preferred street life, which included hanging out with guy who was to become her husband. It also included all the excitement and drama of being a “baby momma.”

She didn’t wait long for that last thrill.  By 19, she was pregnant, and by 20, she was a new bride.  But her life as a wife and mother didn’t turn out like a Walt Disney fairytale, and she’s still frustrated that it was only after she got married that she learned her husband was addicted to cocaine.  It took her years of marriage to finally conclude that his love for cocaine outweighed his love for his wife or his children.  That was a bitter pill to swallow.

Her second child, a daughter who only recently turned 15, was born when Monique was 25.  However, just a year later, after more than six years of trying to turn her husband around, she separated from him to protect her children, and herself.  Though separated, Monique and her husband stayed married for another five years, while she continued to try to turn him around. All during that time, she was a single mother, responsible for her kids, her mortgage note and her future.

With her husband gone, that future was suddenly very important to her.  She went back to college on her own dime, working two jobs and “doing hair” on the weekends to help make ends meet.  Against formidable odds, she finished her Associate degree in child development and her Bachelor’s degree in youth social work. Then she decided – with the final end of her marriage – that she needed a new perspective.  She sold her house in LA, moved to Las Vegas, and here she earned her Master’s Degree in Social Work – her MSW.

While still in college, Monique began working with homeless teens. She was quickly surprised to learn that most of these kids were not rebellious young punks who’d run away from home.  Instead, they were victims – usually of their own parents – parents who, in most cases, had actually driven their daughters out of the house and onto the streets.

While working on her Masters, Monique first ran into a population of girls – pregnant and parenting teen agers – who, because of fears of liability issues, nobody seemed to want to help.   With no one to help them, these victims remained on the streets, the prey of drug dealers, pimps, human traffickers and sexual slavers.  Las Vegas – where “everything has a price” and where “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – was and remains a hotbed for the abuse of homeless teen-aged girls.

Monique couldn’t get those “babies having babies” out of her mind.  They were too close in experience to her own life, and her compassion for them was only matched by her understanding of the huge odds they faced.

Looking back on that, and considering what she does now, Monique sees their risk without blinders. 

On any given day in Clark County Nevada, there are more than 300 unaccompanied homeless kids,” she explained.  “Many of these victims are pregnant, or are already parenting their own babies.  Homeless, without someone to guide them, care for them or provide for them, they are extremely venerable to the lure of drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. They are also forced to participate in survival sex and prostitution, just to provide shelter, food and protection for themselves and their babies.  Many just choose to hide their situation from others, hoping it will go away.”

As she completed her MA, she saw this situation for what it is – not in the depth of understanding she has today, but she saw it clearly enough to know that she wanted to do something to make a difference in these at-risk young girls’ lives.

Her career path, following her MA, was drawn toward helping at-risk populations, though not specifically young girls.  This changed when she connected with another lady in the community, who was conducting a pilot program to pull at least a couple of kids’ lives together, starting by giving them a place to live. 

With her strong academic bent, and with her remarkable organizational skills, Monique was more about policies and procedures than about hands-on helping these kids.  As she helped her new friend, he’d already decided on her life’s work – creating and managing a Foster Care agency focused on troubled teens. 

All she needed was Clark County’s certification of her Foster Care agency, and she’d be ready to go.

While she waited on Clark County, she began helping her new friend, who was all about helping at-risk kids. However, she had little money and no useful organizational skills.  What she did have was a house that she shared with several at-risk girls, where she served as a kind of “den mother” or “big sister” to the girls she was helping. Soon she and Monique realized that each complemented the other. Together, they set out to help at least some of these kids.  Monique turned to fund-raising and organizational management, while her partner focused on actually hands-on helping these at-risk kids.

After three months, thanks to Monique’s fund-raising skills, they had three houses filled with girls, and their babies.  But at that point, with no warning, Monique’s partner bailed.  The pressures just became too much for her.  She just up and moved back to wherever it was that she came from, abandoning the kids and leaving Monique with all the bills, but with no program. She also left Monique with three houses filled with girls and their babies.

Doing her best to network for solutions, Monique quickly placed all but three girls with other appropriate housing. 

Then, her compassion trumping any potential liability issues, she took those three still-homeless girls into her home – a home that already housed her own two children.  It was a big risk in many ways, but it worked. 

Remarkably, one of these three girls remembered her new savior, from a time when Monique had worked for a service agency.  This girl was a mother at sixteen – her baby’s father was her own mother’s boyfriend.  While her mom took her baby to raise, she kicked her own daughter out. 

Living on the streets, this girl was forced into prostitution. Then – having already been an unwed mother and a street-walker, she’d been kicked back onto the streets by her pimp because her feet bled so badly that she could no longer “walk the street.” 

Desperate, that scared little girl – who should have been worrying about prom dresses instead of survival – had gone to a “Safe Place” business location. Then, because it was part of her job at that time, Monique was called in.   She “rescued” that girl from the Safe Place and brought her to sheltered place to live during that moment of crisis. 

While Monique hadn’t remembered this particular girl, this girl remembered her “Angel.” 

Three weeks after taking these girls into her home, Monique got the letter she’d been waiting for.  However, instead of approving her Foster Care agency, Clark County had turned down her request.  They said she could be a Foster Care mom, but despite her training and organizational skills, she could not run a new Foster Care organization.  This was a stunning, callous reversal that shattered her dreams and destroyed the life-plans she’d so carefully crafted.

Devastated, and after a week of unimaginable turmoil, Monique turned this situation over to God. 

“You don’t want me to follow this path,” she told God, “but you want me to do something else.” 

Trusting that her answer would come, Monique took a frightening leap of faith – she put her entire $10,000 retirement fund into a bank account, waiting on God to show her where to put it to work helping others.   

The rest, as they say, is history.

Starting in 2007 with her $10,000 retirement fund as seed money, Monique Harris built an organization to rescue homeless young girls and their babies that, in 2013, was funded at the $1.5 million dollar level.  Because of Nevada’s 2001 “Right to Shelter Law,” the state helped to fund services to homeless kids – and their babies, providing some foundational funding. However, it took all of Monique’s skills and determination to seek out additional funding – not easy for a new non-profit, especially during the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, but she managed.

“I know why God led me in this direction,” she explains.  “The household environment I grew up in.  My father was in and out of jail, and currently, he’s on probation – in all those years, he still hasn’t turned his life around.  We lived in a world of drugs, violence, and sexual abuse, and while he tried to protect me, the siren song of the street was too strong, at least at first.

“With him as my role model, I grew up hard on the streets. I’ve been there, and I know what life on the streets can be life.  This is why I understand the girls – I have lived the life they do now. The only difference between me and the girls my organization rescues is that in my home, I had a support system – my mother. 

“A strong woman with a strong faith, she’s grounded in the Word, and has lived her life with a strong relationship with God.  As a child, she had been abused and neglected, and as she grew up, she swore she’d never do that to her kids.  That commitment is what saved me from a path with no good ending.

“My mother’s love and example helped me to develop a nurturing spirit.  I know the value of a support system, and that’s why I created Southern Nevada Children First.” 

The Facts and Stats
Monique Harris holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Work, focusing on the Non-Profit Sector, as well as a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW). She also holds several professional certifications, including:

·      Youth Agency Administration
·      Model Approaches to Partnership and Parenting
·      Parent Resources for Information Development and Education

For more than 17 years, she has worked for organizations, in many roles, but all providing services to underserved and disadvantaged populations.  She continues to work closely with Children and Family Services, acting as a Foster Parent, a Child and Family Advocate, and a Community Liaison.

Her professional experiences also included providing wraparound services, case management, community outreach and mentoring.