Citizen of the Month: Cindy Harris

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For Cindy Harris, of Chesapeake, volunteering has always been a family theme. While growing up in Memphis, Tenn., she recalls her grandmother volunteering as a social worker into her late 70s. Her mother served in the Girl Scouts and taught Sunday School.

Cindy, a former teacher, moved to Chesapeake in 1989 when her husband, Chuck, became the CEO of the YMCA of South Hampton Roads. While her three kids were in school she served in various positions with the PTA and PTSA and was active in her local church.

Since then she has also volunteered with Young Life, hosting dinners for teen leaders at her home several times each year, and she has worked with the YMCA. She also serves on the Chesapeake Sister Cities Board.

However, her most passionate endeavor is one she never imagined: the role of organ donation advocate.

In September, 2006 her 18-year-old son, Paul, was involved in a serious car accident. After one week in a coma, doctors reported that he had severe brain damage and would not recover. Cindy and her husband made the painful decision to remove life support from him.

“When he died it was like the air was sucked out of me,” Cindy recalls. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe for a good long time.”

When Paul received his driver’s license he had made the decision to become an organ donor. After his death, Cindy and her husband turned to LifeNet Health who walked them through the process of organ donation.

LifeNet Health, based in Virginia Beach, is the largest organ procurement organization in the United States and the largest tissue bank in the world. “They have phenomenal donor family services that reach out to families,” Cindy says.

Twenty-four hours after his passing, Paul’s liver and two kidneys were transplanted in three other people. In all, his donated organs and tissue have helped 69 people in 16 different states.

Several months later, Cindy received a call from LifeNet asking if she would share Paul’s story at a local hospital during a patient advocacy board meeting. She recalls her anxiety as she addressed the audience.

“I had no podium or anything, and I stood there literally with my hands shaking. I could barely hold the papers,” she says. “Afterward I got in the car and cried and cried.”

Soon more speaking requests came in as well as offers to write articles for local publications and participate in media interviews. She has spoken to groups as far away as Brazil. She now considers organ donation advocacy to be her primary life’s work.

“I always say God works in mysterious ways. From the moment we found out about his accident it was really like God was directing me and telling me what I needed to do.”

In addition to her work with LifeNet, her family established two scholarships in her son’s honor. The Paul Charles Harris YMCA Camp Silver Beach Memorial Scholarship Fund provides scholarships for children to attend the popular YMCA camp on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The camp was one of her son’s fondest childhood memories.

“We used to go there before it was even fully built,” Cindy says. “Paul went there from the first time the camp opened. He also built his Eagle Scout project there.” This year the scholarship enabled 13 kids to attend the camp.

The family also established the Paul C. Harris Great Bridge High School Scholarship to help students desiring to pursue college. From the beginning, Cindy says, they wanted the scholarship to be inclusive of everyone regardless of their grades.

“It needed to be unique like our son was, a red-headed, crazy guy who was an average student, had some learning challenges, and loved soccer and the ocean,” she says.

The scholarship carries no GPA requirement and students may enter by writing an essay, crafting a poem, composing a song, or creating artwork. Cindy estimates they have given more than $40,000 in scholarships in the six years since Paul’s death.

Though her advocacy work is the most difficult volunteer work she has ever done, Cindy says it is also the most rewarding. “It’s the kind of volunteer work that I just have to believe that I’m supposed to be doing,” she explains. “This is where God has taken me. It’s in honor of my son who I miss all the time. That’s why I do what I do.”

The Citizen welcomes your recommendations for Citizen of the Month.  Help us to recognize and honor outstanding community leaders who are making a difference in our city.  Email your nominations to:

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One Response to Citizen of the Month: Cindy Harris

  1. Pingback: Cindy Named Citizen of the Month!

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