When Chris Harris-Wimsatt was a boy, his local Boys Club in Raleigh, N.C., was more than a place to have fun. "It was not only a place that saved my life, but gave me life," he tells WMUK's Earlene McMichael today in a very personal interview on the WestSouthwest public-affairs show. Starting around 5 years old, he often had to scrounge up his own food because he was left home alone for weeks at a time, he recalls. By age 11, he wanted to die. Now Harris-Wimsatt says he is paying forward the caring support that his club leaders gave him as the new head of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo.
"To be able to come back and have an impact on this going forward -- and impact other young people like myself -- is like having the biggest piece of chocolate cake and being able to eat it," says Harris-Wimsatt, who became chief executive officer on Feb. 1. "It's a win, win, win all the way around." (Click on above icon to hear aired interview, and the icon later in this post for a longer version.)
He says the position drew nearly 120 applicants.
Harris-Wimsatt replaces Robert Ezelle, a fixture at the club for 44 years, 30 of them at the helm before he retired in December 2016. Harris-Wimsatt served as a board president, vice president and secretary at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo during Ezelle's tenure.
Prior to his recent appointment as CEO, Harris-Wimsatt, who turns 51 on July 4, was director of Western Michigan University's Seita Scholars Program for five years. That program helps former foster youth make a successful transition to college.
Harris-Wimsatt, an only child, had a troubled childhood himself. On WestSouthwest, he tells McMichael that, between the ages of 6 and 16, he was molested by 13 people, sometimes multiple times by some of them.
He says he started, then aborted, a suicide attempt when he was 11, after yet another long period of being left home by himself. It was then, he says, he began dreaming of a career counseling youth and young adults.
His professional life took a different turn initially, including working for the military and later in corporate America. But wherever he'd live, he would take in foster children, Harris-Wimsatt says. In total, he says he has been a foster parent to more than 20 kids, and adopted three children.
Asked his goals for the club, he says it is in the midst of a strategic plan that'll take it through 2025, which will evaluate such areas as facility needs at its main campus, community partnerships, programming, student voice, increasing its reach to Hispanic and other populations, and funding.
Regarding funding, Harris-Wimsatt says one of the ways the club is looking to most immediately raise money for programming is through the 100 Men Who Cook event on Aug. 12. It is being held with Old National Bank.
Look for a longer version of today's interview to air on WestSouthwest at a future date.