Happiness in Helping

By Brad McEwen

I really didn’t know what to expect when local resident Keva Harris joined me for lunch recently at the suggestion of my co-worker Terri Christian. All I really knew was that Terri had been adamant for some time that I visit with Keva for a Beyond the Bank piece because in her opinion Keva was exactly the kind of person the series of feature articles were designed to spotlight—good people, doing good things and putting forth positive energy in our community.

As Terri put it, Keva is just a kind and loving person who, with little fanfare, always seems to be doing for others and helping however she can.

After spending nearly an hour and a half chatting with her about a variety of subjects—including the need for educators to embrace poetry as a means of reaching struggling children, her desire to see the end of racial tensions, her philosophy that happiness and unhappiness are choices and the profound impact her mother had on worldview—I completely understand why Terri is so fond of her friend Keva.

Quite frankly it wasn’t hard for me to take a liking to Keva either. From the outset she was plain-spoken, direct, funny, and totally engaging. It was obvious from the start that Keva has a zest for life and that she cares deeply about what’s happening in the world around her. 

The meeting itself was slightly different than my usual BYB interviews as Keva insisted that we meet for lunch, her treat. That turned out to be fitting because I quickly learned that food plays an important role in what Keva’s all about.

“It’s like a ministry,” she said. “I just like to feed people. Really, one day I just decided, ‘I want to feed people.’”

And so she does.

Keva said she is always looking for opportunities to provide meals for people—whether it’s feeding the workers at the local recycling center or being involved with church mission efforts—and that for the nearly two decades she’s been in Albany Keva’s been involved with different programs to feed the hungry and provide whatever assistance she can.

“It’s wonderful, just feeding people and helping people,” she said. “Where it leads I follow.”

Keva, who was born and raised in the Bahamas before coming to the United States in the early 70s to attend college and later moved to Albany with her husband Mike and their daughter Devon in 2001, told me that doing for others is something she’s felt called to do having witnessed as a child the generosity of her mother.

“We might not have had much but she was a giver and a volunteer,” Keva said. “That was her thing. The genes must have passed on. I think you just need to be available to help people wherever you see a need.

“If I see a job that needs to be done, I’m not going to stop and say, ‘let me pull up my job description; am I supposed to do that?’ I just do it. Going beyond is not that I’m trying to seek whatever. It’s just that my mama said, ‘if there’s something that needs to be done and you can do it, then go ahead and do it.’ That’s just simple math to me.”

As Keva began to expound on the lessons she and her two sisters and two brothers learned from their mother I got an even clearer picture of why that woman meant so much to her.

While sharing a story about her passion for encouraging her co-workers back in her teaching days, the long-time educator—who put in 15 years in the Dougherty County School System (most at MLK Elementary and two at Turner) after working 15 as a teacher in Kennesaw, GA—again drew a line back to her mother.

Keva said she noticed one time during exams that “morale was a little low” so she and another teacher organized some fun activities for the week—which not surprisingly included some food—to pep everyone up.

“We did something for a week to encourage not only teachers, but staff, because everyone’s involved,” she said. “It was just to encourage people. I like to encourage people. That’s me. And again that’s my mom.”

Keva said her mother’s influence also inspired her to be self-reliant, to work hard and to never give up.

“She grew up in a time in the islands that at a certain age that was it for school,” Keva said of her mother’s limited formal education. “But she taught herself. She could calculate anything. When we were building our house it wasn’t my dad who was involved, it was her overseeing it.

“She was the smartest person without being formally educated. I think you might have ability and some people don’t develop it and some people are like, ‘I can’t do this,’ and blah, blah, blah and they just stop right there. She didn’t. Everything was open to her. Whatever she thought she could do, she did.

“She’s my hero. She’s passed away but she’s still my hero.”

Having been instilled with the confidence to try new things, Keva said that after finishing high school in a formal British public school, she decided it was time for an adventure and thus she embarked on the journey that would lead her to meet her husband and ultimately wind up in Albany.

“The time came for college and I said, ‘you know what, I’ve been around these folks for too long; wherever they’re going I’m going in the opposite direction,’” Keva said with a laugh. “A lot of Bahamians went to college in the West Indies or England or Canada. I wanted something new—new sights, new visions. So, I came to the United States. That’s where I met Mike, in Grinnell, Iowa.”

Before meeting her future husband however Keva said she got to experience some other firsts while living in Iowa, including getting introduced to an Iowa staple through a good-natured prank.

“You know what my girlfriends did,” Keva began. “I was in the shower and they brought the snow to me! I had never seen snow and they couldn’t wait for me to go outside and experience it.

“The cold and the culture were very different.”

One of those cultural differences that Keva was introduced to while at Grinnell is something that’s still an issue in our society to this day. True to her nature, however, Keva didn’t let the experience affect her in a negative way.

“Grinnell—that was an experience,” she said. “It was a predominately white town and a predominantly white school and here’s this girl from a predominantly black country coming to Iowa. I went there in 71 and there were still some black/white issues, some tension and whatnot going on between them. I was walking down the street and I think some junior high boys said something, made a racial remark, and my thinking on that was, and is still, it’s learned. It’s learned.”

Despite having experienced something like that, Keva said it only strengthened her resolve to not only be herself, as her mother had taught her, but to make sure she always treated people the way they are supposed to be treated.

“As a matter of fact, when I worked at the hospital (in Miami, before becoming a teacher) this white superintendent, evening supervisor, she told me, ‘people are not going to like you,’” Keva recalled. “I said, ‘why?’ Because I communicated with everybody. You know, I’m just me. I said, ‘you know what, they’re going to have to deal with it. I’m going to be myself.’

“When my mother would call she wouldn’t ask me how much I made, she would just say, ‘are you being yourself? Are you treating people the way you want to be treated?’ And I’d say, ‘yes ma’am.’”

Doing the right thing and loving all people regardless of race or social stature is also something Keva said she’s instilled in her daughter and did from an early age.

“I’ll always remember my daughter was in pre-school, four years old, and I went to pick her up one day and she said, ‘just a minute,’” Keva shared. “So I followed her inside and she went and hugged this little white boy named Cody Thornton. Now the girl is 35, but I still remember Cody! She went to hug him and I said, ‘Lord, this is the way it’s supposed to be, nothing between us.’

“You’ve got to take people for who they are. If you lump everybody together, I say you’ve got the good, the bad and the ugly in all races. You treat people the way you want to be treated.”

That notion of treating people how you wanted to be treated and being kind to all was prevalent throughout my conversation with Keva and I learned that her Christian values inform everything she does, including motivating her to use her time in retirement from teaching to help others.

She told me that during the school year she volunteers her time one day a week to help a friend who is a teacher because she feels that’s just something she should do because she can.

“I do whatever she needs done,” Keva said. “Whatever she needs I can do it for her.”

Keva said she also stays active in her church, and that she has a real affection for helping with the Whiz Kids program at First Free Will Baptist Church. As a former educator the concept of Whiz Kids—where churches adopt students and help them improve their lives through learning—is especially appealing to her.

“I’ve gotten an opportunity, since I retired, to work with the Whiz Kids program,” she said. “I like that. It keeps me in touch with education. I really enjoy working with the kids.”

Keva said the students train and compete in a number of different areas and that she gets really excited about watching them compete and about traveling with them to competitions around the country, including “Nationals.”

“The first one I went to was in West Virginia,” she said. “The competition with the kids, I got hooked. I like seeing them succeed and seeing the talents that they have at different ages. You get to see the kids perform and you feel good when they do well.

“It’s an awesome experience. It’s awesome.”

What is also awesome is the way Keva lights up when talking not just about the Whiz Kids or her volunteer work at the school, but about life in general and how she believes it’s up to each individual to choose the kind of attitude they’re going to have about life.

As an example of her positive attitude about things, Keva shared her reaction to friend’s comment after the friend learned that Keva had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I’m a breast cancer survivor,” said Keva. “I learned that there may be obstacles and challenges.

“I’m not perfect and things happen. You have challenges but you can’t let that stop you. And you can’t let people depress you either. I don’t like being around negative people.

“When I was diagnosed and I was taking radiation, a friend of mine said ‘you know you’re going to get sick.’ And I said, ‘no I’m not.’ People could talk you into thinking and believing things that aren’t true. So I just do what I can.”

The notion of choosing how to live and how to view the world also factors into Keva’s feelings about Albany a place some of her friends back in the Atlanta area told her she’d regret moving to.

“We moved here in 2001 and again, people and their opinions; a friend said “I don’t think you’re going to like Albany,” said Keva. “My thing is, I came with my husband and I decided to like Albany. It was a decision. I said, ‘I WANT to live here. I WANT to be happy here. I’m NOT going to be miserable, contrary to popular belief. I’m going to find me a church, friends, and food.’ I love Albany.

“What you decide to do with where you are is very important. You could be in the richest or the best neighborhood or whatever and you could still be miserable because of the choices you’re making and your attitude.

“Life is too short to be angry and unforgiving and ugly and mean.”

As a kindred spirit who also chooses to focus on the good and positive things in the world, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Keva and when our lunch date came to a close I was excited to have made a new friend and I was incredibly proud to learn that Albany was home to yet another wonderful, caring person determined to make this community a better place. 

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen