Michael Harris comes from a big family—he has six siblings. Incredibly, his heart has room for more. “The Madison Area YMCA staff and members are part of my family,” says the soft-spoken 23-year-old who works as a member services representative at the Madison Area YMCA. 

“Michael has a heart of gold,” says Senior Member Services Representative Cathy Landolfi. Ask anyone who works with Michael and inevitably, Michael’s heart will be mentioned. “Michael has the biggest heart!” says colleague, Melissa Kull. “He’s like a security blanket—he keeps everyone calm.”

“The Y is home. It’s not like home—it is home,” says the East Orange resident as he checks in a member. Handing the card back to the man, Michael smiles. Turning back to the conversation, he says, “I don’t really feel like I’m coming to work when I come here. It’s imperative that I stay working here at the Y. I’m happy here—even if it’s the closing 11 o’clock shift or waking up at 4:30 a.m. to open the Y.”

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Michael says that he’s formed relationships with members who treated him like family and invited him to their homes for dinner when he was a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University where he graduated last year after studying sociology, criminal justice and African American Studies. 

 

Currently pursuing a master’s degree in Divinity and Social Work at Rutgers University, Michael is also a choir member, preacher and youth pastor at the Church of God and Saints of Christ in Newark where he goes out into the streets to speak and pray with the young people in his community. Michael also works with 6th graders who have behavioral issues at the Patrick F. Healy Middle School in East Orange. “If I can get one student to do their work and better themselves, it’s a good thing,” says Michael with a hearty laugh. “Never give up.”

 

“Never give up” is a mantra he shares with his mother. “She always says never give up. She’s an example of hope and always has faith in front of our family,” says Michael, sharing that his father passed away when he was a young child—and adding proudly that four in his family have graduated from college and three are currently in graduate school.    

 

With his sights set on a doctorate in Divinity, the activist has started Brotherly Love, a nonprofit for young men between the ages of 16 and 23 in Newark and East Orange. “I know the challenge and how these kids don’t have a fighting chance in the inner cities. People like me have to be there to support them,” he says, looking down at his hands for a moment. “They’re even more marginalized because they’ve aged out of any other developmental program for children in their situation on the streets. It can be a tough situation to get out of.”

Sitting at the Welcome Center, Michael calls out to people who’ve finished their workout and are exiting the building, “Have a good night!” He gets lots of smiles and waves in return. They’re part of his family.