JoAnne Harris’ three decade long commitment to Inwood Community Services, Inc. as a board member (and for long periods as Board treasurer) was truly a gift. Her compassion and kindness touched the lives of everyone she encountered.
Allow me to relate three brief vignettes to illustrate a few of her many unique qualities and contributions.
Soon after we settled into 651 academy street, I recall retiring board member, Theresa Fleming, telling me that she had a coworker at Citibank that would be a perfect addition to ICS’s board.
As was our custom at the time, I called JoAnne, the Board Candidate, and invited her to come by on her lunch hour for an interview.
She came by around noon on one of those endless July days …with a comfortable breeze and a brilliant sky. I happened to be in front of the building when she arrived.
For those of you who don’t know, ‘in front of’ our offices for July and august means on our ICS/PAL Play Street.
On that particular July day, the street was teeming with kids. Running, laughing…being kids in a safe, supportive environment…at a time when the neighborhood was unfortunately not quite that.
When JoAnne arrived, she was instantly moved by the sight. Her face lit up with a smile that remained throughout our discussion. We spoke about ICS, its goals, needs, budgets, and hopes. She shared about her history, training, and current position. We found ourselves casually walking up and down the street as we spoke. What I realized was what we were discussing was really quite secondary to the resonance we felt. It was clear to me that she believed in what we were doing, and wanted to do what she could to help.
We never made it up to my office that day, but the interview was certainly a success. I’m frankly not surprised that after seeing how naturally she blended into the magic of our play street…and the innocence and aspirations of its children…she signed up for ICS that day…and remained with us for literally the rest of her life.
Almost immediately after she joined the Board, JoAnne agreed to be a signer on our accounts.
True to the soldier she was, she was scheduled to sign our checks the very day she passed away.
Thinking back, I remember that during the 1990s, I would regularly help out our developing fiscal office by taking the checks on Fridays to JoAnne for signature.
Her Citibank branch at that time was hardly a quiet place. To the contrary, words like ‘Bedlam’ and ‘Zoo’ were frequently used in the same sentence as ‘JoAnne how do you stay so calm?’.
When I arrived at the bank, the drill was always the same: ask the teller to please find JoAnne and let her know ICS was here.
Inevitably, and in short order, Joanne would emerge: from a cubicle in the back, or the vault in the basement…or out from behind some other teller.
In the midst of the noise, the pressure, the clicking, and the clanging, she would invite me into her office, and get right to the business of signing our checks. Two things were amazing: she had that welcoming smile…and she would ask me how I was doing, my wife, my kids, etc.
On many occasions, I remembered being in awe: here’s this poor woman with customers climbing the walls, demanding everything from the best cd rate, to the next super stock…..and she’s calmly helping us out, and thinking about me.
Professional, composed, compassionate, and tenacious.
That was JoAnne.
At ICS Board meetings, JoAnne was kind, conciliatory, and pleasant. I can’t remember her ever getting into a conflict with anyone.
However, I do remember a fall meeting over 20 years ago when the board was in the midst of very heated fiscal discussion. Our mental health clinic had just been suddenly left to care for over 100 uninsured and undocumented, seriously mentally ill patients without any funding to do so. the partner community group that held the contract had decided impulsively and unethically to use the funds to cover a budget gap, and told us to just ‘discharge all your patients to the ER’.
The Board was understandably panicked by the fiscal implications of the situation. The suggestion was made that maybe we need to get out of this mental health clinic business, since the funding was frequently erratic and unstable.
Before such a notion could gain any momentum, like a thunderbolt from the heavens, JoAnne asserted loudly: “…why are we throwing the baby out with the bath water?…’
You could hear a pin drop.
She then went on the remind everyone of the mission of this organization…and the fact that we had survived financial challenges before…. and the reality that our clinic was helping some of our most vulnerable neighbors, and in some cases, literally saving families and lives.
Here was JoAnne the banker compellingly using the calculus of a higher power!
Needless to say, the clinic survived…ICS survived…and the same clinic serves close to 700 (not 100) clients today.
JoAnne was right.
In closing, may I simply say that it has been a privilege to have crossed paths with Joanne for so many years. I know she is already in a place greater than we understand…smiling…as she did watching the girls skip rope on our PlayStreet thirty years ago
Charles Corliss, Ph.D., ABPP
March 26, 2016