2015 Corpsmember of the Year Harris Cox featured in San Francisco Chronicle article

Living in the Present Trumps Man's Bad Past

San Francisco Chronicle - Chip Johnson
February 16, 2015

 

Determined to keep a promise to his dying grandmother, Harris Cox came to Oakland’s Civicorps program at age 21, in search of a high school diploma.

Since then, he’s accomplished that and much more.

This month, Cox, 24, was one of five people honored as a Corpsmember of the Year by the National Corps Network, an organization with programs like Civicorps in more than 100 U.S. cities and more than 25,000 participants. He accepted the award and spoke at a ceremony held in Washington, D.C.

The organization offers job training, education, guidance and fellowship to young people, ages 18 to 26, whose lives have been derailed by bad choices, a lack of options or sheer circumstance. And it’s clear from Cox’s life story that he never really had a chance until he joined the organization.

When he was 6, an older brother who suffered from mental problems doused the boy’s shirt with rubbing alcohol and set him on fire. Cox was badly burned and spent the next six years in and out of medically induced comas while receiving skin grafts from his neck to his legs.

He awoke angry, scarred and alone from what he described as an endless walk in search of his own body. The day after he awoke, his grandmother, his rock, slipped into a coma and died.

Growing up in Merced, Cox started dealing drugs and running the streets. He was angry at the world, ashamed of his scars and plagued by nightmares from the childhood assault. He pondered suicide on more than one occasion.

“I wanted to die so bad that I picked on anyone who I believed was willing to take my life,” Cox said in an interview.

By the time he was 16, Cox had been shot in the face and a violent assault had earned him a three-year stint in a juvenile detention facility. His behavior soon led authorities to move Cox to an adult prison, he said.

When he was released at age 18, he followed his high school sweetheart to Oakland, where he resumed life as a drug dealer and became a father.

He started at Civicorps the same way all members begin: hard work, non-negotiable work hours and mandatory classroom instruction.

Clearing encampment

Cox was initially suspicious and distrustful, but tasked with work duties and armed with resources and camaraderie, he began to respond.

He began to thrive in and out of the classroom. Alongside fellow corps members, Cox built firebreaks and rock dams, and cut down trees for $1,200 a month. Then one day he came face to face with his own past when his crew was called on to clear out a homeless encampment.

“I felt guilty ’cause I know what it’s like to sleep on a bus bench or in a shelter, not knowing where your next meal is coming from,” he said. “I felt like we should be helping them.”

So while his colleagues cleared the camp, Cox went to a nearby grocery store and bought sandwiches for everyone.

Through Civicorps, Cox also found a way to quell the demons that dredge up the long-ago assault, plaguing his sleep and leaving him drenched in sweat.

About a year ago, Cox was introduced to the practice of mindfulness, a mental exercise that teaches people to focus on the present.

“Mindfulness creates space between your emotions and what you do,” said Laurie Grossman, an instructor who mentors Cox. “It’s awareness of the present moment without judgment.”

He took mindfulness courses at Kaiser Permanente and interned with Grossman, who teaches at Inner Explorer, an Oakland program.

In May, Cox started teaching mindfulness to kids at Reach Academy, an Oakland public school. This week, he starts a new gig teaching mindfulness to middle-school children in San Lorenzo.

Hoping to become pilot

“These kids are going through some of the same things,” Cox said. “You have to learn to live day to day, regardless of the household or the mom and dad you have to weather.”

When he’s not teaching or working, Cox is studying at Merritt College and hopes to learn to pilot an airplane.

It’s a fitting goal for a young man whose personal life has taken off.

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