A journey of faith, volunteerism and leadership

Photo courtesy of Jenifer Harris — Jenifer Harris shares the stage with Mike Saffell, when he was sworn in as Gardena Chief of Police in January 2020. Saffell has been one of Harris’ mentors.

Jenifer Harris has been a difference maker at all levels of community service

By Gary Kohatsu

Some people choose to serve. Others choose to lead.

A few choose to do both, simultaneously. Jenifer Harris slides into this dual role with ease and assuredness.

Her road to community service began while in middle school, where she gravitated to leadership roles. When opportunities arose, she jumped in as a volunteer.

“During that time I saw a lot of homeless people and felt compassion for them,” Harris said. “I decided then that I was going to create a non-profit to help homeless people get back on their feet and provide them with shelter.”

In the fall of 2018, she developed Connected to Lead. By early March 2019, she said the Lord gave her the vision to create a network “for young professionals focused on leadership development and developing meaningful relationships.”

“I applied as an individual for the California Mental Health Service Authority’s grant for $5,000,” Harris said. “I was awarded the grant and birthed Connected to Lead. In June 2019, I coordinated three full-day sessions with professionals ages 18 to 50-plus from Los Angeles County.”

She said the workshops focused on leadership development, goal setting, yoga, telling your story and more.

“The evaluation responses were extremely positive, which led me to restructure the original idea for my non-profits programming to people of all ages,” Harris said.

The mission of Connected to Lead is to create space for people of to make meaningful connections while strengthening the leader within them, she said.

Collaboration with other organizations is part of Lead’s mission, she said. 

“Though COVID-19 has been challenging for most, we were able to pivot,” Harris said. “We’ve successfully transitioned our programming to a virtual platform, which has helped us reach a wider audience and develop resilient leaders in other counties.”

Gardena police Chief Make Saffell said Harris has created a non-profit group that embodies her spirit.

“I have had the privilege of watching Jenifer grow,” Saffell said by email. “To me her perfect job would be as a CEO of her own non-profit designed to focus on the development of young adults. That is her passion and it’s a role that she has seemed to be destined for.”

Employee of the Year

Harris presently works as a prevention coordinator for Behavioral Health Services in Gardena. The company focuses primarily on substance abuse prevention and treatment.

Her job includes policy advocacy, event and workshop coordination, youth curriculum facilitation, conducting presentations and trainings, collaboration, and staff supervision.

For her diligence and resourcefulness, she was awarded the company’s 2020 Employee of the Year Award. This was her second such honor, as she received the award previously in 2017.

Harris credits her team and partners for her success. She said the pandemic in March halted a lot of the work she and her team were planning.

Harris added that her spiritual faith guided her as the state pandemic mandates were imposed.

“God gave me the vision to coordinate a series of virtual workshops,” Harris said. “I stayed up planning for hours. The next day, I reached out to three partners and my team to express my vision and seek their participation. We then developed the structure, began reaching out to our networks for presenters, and started coordinating the Growing Prevention Online Workshop Series for six weeks from (April 13 to May 22) Monday to Friday.

Anna Picazo Gonzáles, a fellow BHS prevention specialist, said that Harris’ devotion is unique and that she is a wonderful influence to others.

The amount of passion Jen demonstrates is an inspiration for others to follow their own passions,” Gonzáles said by email. “Her passion drew me in and her kindness, creativity, and authenticity continue to captivate me. She is very serious about getting the work done, but as a leader she strives to strengthen the curiosity and creativity within her team members.”

Early Days

Harris was born 34 years ago in Bellflower. She was the middle child (all girls) born to Terrence Harris (a trucker) and wife, Sheila, who worked for AT&T. 

As a child, Harris and her family attended the Prayer Assembly Church of Christ. She is a lifelong Christian and now virtually attends attend Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, Wash.

She grew up in Lynwood till the 6th grade, then moved from Lawndale to Gardena as an adult.

While a student at Peary Middle School, Harris played sports, was a tall flags captain, volunteered at the library after school, sang in the choir and participated in the Gardena police GREAT Program.

In her freshman year at Gardena High, Harris played softball and had plans to play basketball her sophomore year. But as does often happen, God intervenes in one’s life, she said.

“While visiting relatives in Colorado during the summer following my freshman year, we were involved in a car crash,” Harris said. “I broke my thumb and tore ligaments in my wrist causing me to undergo surgery and get pins in my wrist and thumb. I didn’t heal in time for the start of the basketball season and decided to join a club.”

She redirected her athletic energies to several school clubs and scholastic ventures.

Harris became GHS junior class president, then ASB president during her senior year; Editor-In-Chief of her school newspaper’ Prom Committee chair; as well as speaking at the LAUSD school board meeting about school safety at GHS and the board increasing security the following week, passing smoke-free parks in Gardena, and a member of the GHS school site council.

Two clubs proved significant in shaping her identity.

“Joining HSTF was a blessing in disguise. It fueled my desire to make a difference,” she said. “It gave me opportunities to connect with elected and local leaders. It helped me continue developing my public speaking skills. I tried new foods, which broadened my palate. Most importantly, it was connected to one of my values… living a drug-free life.”

Likewise, the New Life Club helped deepen her relationship with the Lord.

“It was a safe space and an opportunity for me to connect with other believers,” she said.

Her sophomore year at GHS also helped her to realize her love for volunteering.

Before graduating from GHS, she saw many opportunities for community service, youth development in particular.

“I believed that their development would have the ability to change the trajectory of their lives and hopefully steer them away from poverty,” she said.

Lion Service and Mentors

In 2008, Harris was sponsored into the El Camino Lions Club by Urb Miki, a founding member. She quickly realized that her Lion membership would give her opportunities to make a difference.

She says the EC Lion who most impacted her life was Loyce Holt, a Lion member and the retired director of the City of Gardena Recreation and Human Services Department.

“(Loyce) took me under her wing and showed me the ropes,” Harris sid. “She provided encouragement and feedback. Loyce made sure I attended Lions functions throughout the district and she invested in my leadership development. She shared her wisdom, made me laugh, and always provided love. Over the years, Loyce became family.”

While on the topic of influences, Harris said Gardena Police Chief Mike Saffell was among the most important figures in her life — today and as a youth.

“Chief Mike Saffell has taught me the value and importance of leadership,” she said. “He shares his wisdom, shows me the importance of patience, and asks me questions to help me think critically. He listens and is always there when I need him. He has seen many tears and supported me in my journey. He makes me feel valued, cared for, encouraged, and confident.”

Saffell was likewise complimentary of Harris.

Although she was one of the youngest in the (GDAAP) group (in 2002), it was clear that she was the leader,” Saffell said by email. “She has more energy and determination than anyone I have ever met. She makes those around her better. Having her involved with any project or program makes it better.”

Two others that Harris identifies as role models are retired teacher Shirley McCarly and former GDAAP treasurer, Jane Tokubo.

“Shirley taught me the importance of being a follower,” Harris said. “She said, ‘Even Jesus was a follower. Great leaders know how to both lead and follow.’ It changed my life.”

As for Tokubo, Harris said, “Jane taught me many elements of a nonprofit, event planning, and how to actively serve on a board. Jane has always led through her actions and is someone I’ve admired since I was in middle school. She helped me secure my first board position as the secretary for the Harbor Gateway South Neighborhood Council.”

Harris’ 2021 plans include, creating a children’s book series on leadership development featuring Black, Indigenous, and People of Color as the main characters; securing major streams of funding for Connected to Lead to help us coordinate impactful programming; transition into Connected to Lead full time; and strengthening her relationship with the lord.

God is her beacon of faith and guidance, she said.

“When I needed support, God sent the right people,” she said. “When there was no money to support the vision God instilled in me regarding my program, God provided everything and then some. In my role, God used me to develop amazing staff who have gone on to make an impact. God helped me develop programming that has gone nationally. This took prayer and listening to God’s voice instead of trying to do everything on my own.”