Emma Harris is an inspiring example of how one person can dramatically impact their community through volunteer service. For the past nine years, she has been actively engaged in fostering positive youth development and community development in the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Reservation. Turning a personal tragedy into an opportunity to forge a healthier community, Harris has helped mobilize local youth and adults to create important change.
Emma Harris lives in Lame Deer, Montana, located in the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Reservation. The Northern Cheyenne Nation, with a population of about 6,200, has faced severe obstacles to positive development – the near loss of an identity as a people has had a major detrimental impact on the community. Challenges are amplified by the geographic, social, and economic isolation faced by the reservation. The reservation encompasses 445,000 acres and the nearest major city is 110 miles away. Most families cannot afford transportation and many residents do not have access to a telephone.
For nine years, Harris has striven to make the reservation a “place where young people see opportunity instead of isolation and despair.” After her daughter died from an alcohol-related accident, Harris organized a community dance to provide youth with a social outlet and educate the public about the dangers of alcohol abuse. Nearly 200 people attended and funds raised from the event allowed two more dances to be held. Through this effort, Harris became involved in a movement to start a youth recreation center in Lame Deer. She led volunteers in cleaning and re-painting a local building and launching a community center dedicated to serving reservation youth.
In its first year of operation, the youth center was staffed and maintained by volunteers. Harris operated a concession stand at a local casino and working with other organizations to obtain money to purchase equipment and hire full-time staff. In 1993, the Youth Center was incorporated as a Boys & Girls Club, and Harris is now employed there as a program coordinator.
Through her additional work with the local Cooperative Extension Office, Harris helped her community become involved with National 4-H Council’s “Bridging the Gap of Isolation” project, designed to foster sustainable community development and create resources for positive youth development in rural and isolated areas. As a volunteer with the BTG project, Harris organized a local youth/adult team that works with the community to identify local assets and resources, and develop a plan to make the community vision a reality. She spearheaded the collection of demographic data on one of the poorest neighborhoods on the reservation. The data was used by the Tribal Council to plan community services and events, including a holiday gathering and dinner that provided residents with a free meal and gifts for children. Harris and her team now serve as resources for others interested in data collection and working in youth/adult partnerships.
Harris is now working to put in place elements of her community’s vision focused on community safety, housing, and recreation. Emma Harris is a fun-loving person who works tirelessly for her community and local youth.