‘He was always there’

Alexander Harris (right) speaks with Johnny Eubanks outside of Harris’ residence in Atlanta’s Mechanicsville neighborhood. Harris has been a part of Eubanks’ life since Eubanks was 12. Eubanks says Harris taught him, among other things, how to be a family man and care for his children. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Atlanta man works for Braves, Delta yet his biggest role is inspiring inner-city kids

Maybe you have seen him dancing on the big screen at a Braves game. Maybe it’s his friendly, bespectacled face that greeted you on the way to your seat. Alexander Harris is among the most popular, beloved Braves ushers, but what his baseball friends may not know is he’s also a modern-day hero.

Harris, who goes by both Andre’, his middle name, and Alex is changing, even saving, lives every day. When the phone rings, he answers, one foot already out the door. Maybe a kid just needs to talk, maybe someone needs food or a ride, or maybe it’s a collect call from the Fulton County Rice Street Jail. No matter the caller, no matter the time, Harris answers and acts, just as he was raised to do.

Harris, 55, grew up in Peoplestown, an Atlanta neighborhood, just a holler from where he lives now in Mechanicsville. He’s as local as Coca-Cola, his roots as deep as a Georgia pine. He was a “Grady baby,” born at Grady Hospital, just like his 11 older brothers and sisters, and has been a devoted member of Second Baptist of Peoplestown since infancy. He’s a quintessential Atlantan, currently employed at Truist Park as an usher for the Atlanta Braves and at Delta as a cargo agent. He’s held the jobs for 21 and two years, respectively.

It’s not those jobs, however, that keep his cellphone ringing. It’s his other job, the one that pays nothing, but reaps the greatest rewards. The job that Harris pours himself into 24 hours a day, the one he holds most dear, is Empowerment Zone Encouraging Teens (EZET), the nonprofit Harris launched 20 years ago.

Empowerment Zone Encouraging Teens (EZET) volunteers cooked for and handed out food to the homeless with their leader, Alexander Harris, on June 6. CONTRIBUTED BY ALEXANDER HARRIS

“It all started when a friend at church asked if her two grandsons, ages 10 and 11, could come stay with me,” said Harris. “Their parents moved them down from Chicago because their older brother had joined a gang. Their grandmother was concerned that she couldn’t provide all they needed, so I took them in. From there, kids were coming up to me all the time, asking questions, wanting advice. That’s when I had the idea to start a youth group to serve inner-city kids.”

A father and role model

Harris held his first meeting at his old apartment off Vanira Avenue in 2000. In addition to his own two young sons, there were 11 boys and three girls who came to hear Harris speak. The following week, there were 30 kids in attendance and, as word traveled, attendance, at its best, grew to more than 60 kids. The group had to start meeting at Georgia Hill Library.

“My first pastor was an amazing man who hosted 40 to 50 kids in the basement of the church for Vacation Bible School,” said Harris. “I’ve been around that way of doing things, of gathering kids and helping them, my whole life, and I knew I wanted to give back to my neighborhood.”

Stories about Harris, the man who champions inner-city youth, travel from kid to kid, producing a steady stream of new faces at the EZET meetings. Sometimes it’s parents who reach out to Harris, asking him to help their children. Many kids show up because they have dropped out of school, are homeless, or both. It’s common for Harris to allow troubled teens to stay at his apartment. He usually has five teenagers in his three-bedroom apartment, in addition to his youngest son, Dreveon, 20. His oldest son, Glendrevious, 26, lives in California, where he is an active-duty Marine.

“My dad was always helping kids,” said Glendrevious. “He practically adopted two when my brother and I were kids, so he raised the four of us together, on his own. My parents divorced and dad still managed to do it all, even coaching me in baseball all the way up through high school. Growing up where I did, lots of kids didn’t have dads around. I knew I was fortunate to have mine. He supported everything I wanted to do. Even when I quit baseball, which was our thing, I moved on to track and it was like nothing changed. He was there, supporting me.”

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Glendrevious, who received an invitation and scholarship to attend Pace Academy for high school, then went straight to the Naval Academy after graduation, tutored the EZET kids throughout middle and high school. He still tutors over the phone when needed.

“I moved on to start my career, but I see the impact my dad’s had on the community — helping kids get their GEDs, get into sports, get scholarships, helping them get jobs and become good dads — he helps them become men and I want to help, too,” said Glendrevious. “What I’ve learned from my dad is if you have the opportunity to help others, do it. As God blesses you, you should bless others.”

‘I want a different path’

These days, the EZET teens pile into Harris’ apartment for meetings. They convene for two hours of tutoring and discussions about things like avoiding profanity and using respectful language, the importance of earning a GED, and an array of social issues. Harris also emphasizes the responsibility to give back through volunteering. They participate in Hosea Feed the Hungry every other year and frequently feed the homeless and hand out toiletries to the homeless on the weekends.

Harris loves to cook and often cooks for the kids and their families. He always cooks dinner for the group meetings, and all meetings begin and end with a prayer. Harris, who has attended the funerals of at least 10 young people lost to violence, has led many of the kids to faith, even inspiring some, like Johnny Eubanks, to get baptized.

EZET youth prepare meals for needy Atlanta residents during a recent community outreach effort. CONTRIBUTED / ALEX HARRIS

Eubanks, now 34, met Harris when he was just 13 and says he wonders if he would be in the streets or dead if not for EZET.

“I’m from the hood, grew up in the projects,” said Eubanks, a general warehouse worker. “My dad lived in another state. It was just me and my mom, then I met Andre’ and everything changed. We met for a team meeting every Thursday and he talked to us about how we could overcome, what we could do to stay out of trouble. I used to fight a lot, but Andre’ opened my mind, telling me it’s OK to be angry, but I had to learn to control it. I have friends with life sentences. I saw shootouts and dead bodies when I was just a kid. Andre’ reached out and tried to save everyone and tell us what to do to be successful in life.”

Beyond meetings, Harris uses his own money to take kids out on the weekends — bowling, skating, shopping — and he never accepts a dime from the kids. He attends school conferences when the kids need a parent. He’s helped them buy cars and diapers. He takes them on field trips to a Grady clinic to learn about hygiene, sex and diseases. He’s taken kids to the emergency room and stood by them in juvenile court. He signs permission slips and goes on college tours.

“He came to my high school football games and pushed me to stay in line, helping me become All-State in football and earn a scholarship to Morehouse College,” said Eubanks. “He’s the reason I went there, he and my mom. They supported everything I did. When my mom passed away my sophomore year, Andre’ stepped in even more. When I needed a ride, when I didn’t have enough food, he was always there. I knew what I should do, just by watching him. Even now I look to him and love him like a father. This isn’t just my story, it’s all of ours.”

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Maurice Simmons, 17, a senior at Cedar Grove High School, met Harris a year ago through friends who are part of EZET.

“They told me this group gives back a lot, and that’s something I like to do, so I got involved,” said Simmons. “We do lots of activities, like feeding the homeless, and I really like that. Andre’ is so generous and he cares so much. He’s always calling and checking in, looking out for all of us. I recently got into a fight at school, my first. He helped me get the charges dropped, because I was defending myself. He’s going to go to court with me.”

Simmons has watched friends join gangs and drop out of school; some have even died from drugs and violence. One of his friends was shot to death, another, stabbed.

“I want a different path and Andre’ is helping me,” said Simmons. “He put me in touch with Atlanta Tech. I’m thinking about going there after I graduate. Beyond trade school, I just want to do like Andre’ and be supportive in my community. It’s already in me, but Andre’ motivates me more every day. Before I react, I think about what he’ll say, because that matters to me.”

The recent deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks have spurred many conversations between Harris and the EZET teens about race issues. The Brooks case hits especially close to home, as Brooks was an acquaintance of Harris and the Wendy’s where he was shot by police officers is near Harris’ neighborhood.

“A few of the kids joined me for a march over at that Wendy’s,” said Harris. “I drive by there every day and it’s just so sad. The kids call me and we talk about race and police brutality. I tell them that every case is not the same and all police aren’t bad. You can’t judge everyone by a few. You just can’t look at things like that. I’m looking forward to getting together again for a regular meeting so we can talk as a group and think of ways we can make a change.”

Inspiring others to help

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EZET has been unable to hold meetings. They did gather in June, donning masks and gloves, to feed the homeless.

Atlanta artist Missy Maude, 32, met Harris, whom she calls Alex, at a Braves game about five years ago. Harris was an usher near the Braves dugout at the old Turner Field, where Maude’s family held season tickets. Over time, Maude and Harris formed a friendship that has continued since the move to Truist Park (formerly SunTrust Park).

Atlanta artist Missy Maude met Alexander Harris at a Braves game about five years ago and have become friends. Harris was an usher near section where Maude s family held season tickets. Maude has helped provide a back-to-school supply drive and Christmas stockings for the EZET youth. CONTRIBUTED

“My mom and I were always excited to talk to Alex and hear more amazing stories and updates about the kids he was helping,” said Maude. “Over the past three years, especially, we’ve realized how amazing he is and we’ve been doing our best to spread the word about him in our community. We’ve even reached out to ‘The Ellen Show.’”

Inspired by Harris’ work with EZET, Maude took to Instagram to ask her 5,000-plus followers to help with a back-to-school drive for Harris’ teens. The effort garnered bookbags, calculators, children’s books and $3,000 to purchase even more school supplies. She and 35 of her friends also filled stockings for the teens at Christmas, giving them tons of gift cards, journals, headphones and more.

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“Alex is so inspiring and such a good friend,” said Maude. “His mission is now my mission. I want to help every single person he wants to help, and I truly believe these kids deserve it.”

Maude hopes the community will rally around Harris and help EZET expand.

“He’s doing so much,” said Maude. “It’s a lot for anyone to do on their own, mentally and physically. He needs a team. I hope others will believe in his work, like I do, and join him. I want Alex to be able to continue making a difference and being a leader and example, but I want him to stay healthy and prioritize himself, too.”

Maude hoped to lead a fundraiser for EZET this spring, but those plans were thwarted by the pandemic. She plans to do the back-to-school drive again at the end of summer.

“I grew up at the Braves stadium, just like (Harris), but we have completely different experiences,” said Maude. “I was able to go be entertained, while he was working three jobs, entertaining all of us and helping support his community. He transforms lives, even at Braves games.”

Harris’ former co-worker, Wendy Stewart, echoes Maude’s sentiments. “He and I worked together for 15 seasons at Turner Field,” said Stewart, 62, a retired educator and current employee at Delta Global Services. “Everyone knows him. He loves kids, but really, he just loves people. He will go out of his way to make sure whoever was at that game had a memorable experience. He’s the guy who started a celebratory dance after every home run. It caught on and, next thing you know, he’s got me dancing, other ushers and even season ticket holders, all dancing together.”

Atlantan Alexander Harris launched Empowerment Zone Encouraging Teens (EZET)about 20 years ago to help youth in inner-city Atlanta. During a recent outreach effort, members of Harris’ group prepared and handed out meals to homeless people in Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED / ALEXANDER HARRIS

Stewart, a single parent of four, got to know Harris’ biological kids and his EZET kids very well over the years. Together, her kids and Harris’ comprised a group referred to as “the stadium kids.” They would often buy the Clark Howard $1 tickets for games, and some even earned jobs at the stadium. Stewart has shared Harris’ pride and cried tears of joy as the EZET kids have gone on to earn scholarships and attend college. They’re exceptional kids because, she says, they have an exceptional example.

“People always say, ‘Oh, they need help,’ but he’s the person who says, ‘They need help, what can I do?’” said Stewart. “Alex lives in a community that hasn’t always been the best, and he’s seen so many kids go astray. But he lives side by side with these young people and shows them, I live here, too. I’m going to show you the right path.”

Working toward a dream

Harris has been on workers’ compensation from Delta since June 2019. He was on the tarmac in a cargo tug, waiting for the airplane when he was rear-ended by a larger tug. He sustained back and neck injuries. He is still dealing with intense daily pain, juggling doctor’s visits and hoping to find a physical therapy regimen that will help him handle his day-to-day chores with less discomfort. He is also not working his job as an usher for the Braves right now due to the pandemic. A return date has not yet been set, but he receives e-mail updates and is hopeful he will be back at it soon. Throughout the pain he’s endured from his accident, the pandemic and race relations, Harris’ positive attitude has endured, as has his mission for EZET.

“You know what I dream of?” said Harris. “I want a youth center that can hold all these kids, much more space than my apartment can provide. I want it to have a big meeting room, a computer lab, a place where at least 10 kids can sleep. All the kids will be required to work toward their GED. We’ll teach them to drive, we’ll give them food, and, most importantly, we’ll get them off the streets.”

It’s a big dream, but an attainable one, Harris believes. He has supported at-risk Atlanta teens for 20 years and there’s no stopping him. He’s witnessed many changes over the past 50 years, but the sense of community, of loving one’s neighbor, has not faltered. He’s ready to grow, ready to give more and he believes the city he’s loved his whole life will rally with support.

“It’s like I always tell the kids,” said Harris, “you must find the good in you and share it with someone else.”

For readers who would like to make a donation to Empowerment Zone Encouraging Teens, visit the organization’s Go Fund Me campaign.

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