Sunday Conversation: Lightning VP Keith Harris strikes a chord for the Boys & Girls Clubs

Keith Harris, right, poses with wife Monica Williams Harris, 2-year-old son Miles Harris, and oldest daughter Alicia McDowell. Harris, the Lightning vice president of human resources, also has two other daughters, Krista and Camryn, who are students at the University of South Florida. Photo courtesy of Keith Harris.
Keith Harris, right, poses with wife Monica Williams Harris, 2-year-old son Miles Harris, and oldest daughter Alicia McDowell. Harris, the Lightning vice president of human resources, also has two other daughters, Krista and Camryn, who are students at the University of South Florida. Photo courtesy of Keith Harris.
Published January 19 2018
Updated January 21 2018

Keith Harris fondly looks back on some memorable days from his Tampa upbringing when he worked as a lifeguard at a pool next to a Boys & Girls Club. ∂Whenever it rained, he watched as the kids retreated to the safe haven of the club. They entered into a building that not only provided shelter from natureís storms, but protected them from lifeís storms.

"They had counselors, adults who supervised these kids and took the time to pour love and guidance into them," Harris said.

Now Harris, the Tampa Bay Lightning vice president of human resources, serves as the first African-American chairman of the 90-year-old Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay. Heís helping the organization chart new initiatives and extend its mission of touching the lives of more than 20,000 kids in Hillsborough and Pasco Counties.

Harris, 52, recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about the organizationís 2018 outlook, juggling the demands of work and philanthropy and the joy of raising his 2-year-old son with his wife, attorney Monica Williams-Harris, at a later stage in life.

Youíre involved in a number of philanthropic efforts, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay. What drives you to be so active?

When you have the boss (Lightning owner Jeff Vinik) sending a clear message to his staff that he encourages and wants to see you involved in community activities, it makes my job as head of HR a lot easier to say this is stuff weíre going to give our attention to. We donít have to ask permission to do it. He encourages it. We do it. Thatís opened the door for me to utilize such a high-profile brand and platform to impact my community. Iím a Tampa native. The point is not lost on me that they see me as one of the few African-American executives in this community, and with a brand like the Lightning, Iím challenged to say, "How can I utilize it to help?" So one of the things that drives me is that itís professionally supported.

The other thing that drives me is that Iíve come full circle professionally. Iíve always had offices where I traveled around to multiple sites, but as Iíve gotten older, what Iíve learned is that all you really have is the community that you live in. You can try to change the world by making philanthropic contributions, you can align yourself with all manner of initiatives, but at the end of the day, stick to the things that you care about that are close to you.

Itís about having roots in a community, right?

Absolutely. Iíve got deep ties in the community. And itís about your interests. Cancer has affected my family so one of the ways I honor my momís legacy is to try to fight cancer. Thereís the George Edgecomb Society thatís been formed at the Moffitt Cancer Society. Thereís education, which was important to my dad, so my brother and I started a small scholarship fund. So itís the things that are close to me, including the Boys & Girls Club.

The Boys & Girls Club is realizing some new successes in Town ĎN Country, in Wimauma, in Winston Park. Tell me about those successes.

The demographics of this community are rapidly changing. As Tampa grows, we know thereís a strong drive towards turning our inner cities into vibrant hubs of business and commerce, living and working spaces, to improve the quality of life for the folks who are there and to bring in higher levels of income. What that has a tendency to do is drive people from the underserved population farther out, to the outskirts of the city and to the county. The clubís philosophy is letís make sure we donít forget those kids. If those kids have started to sprawl, letís get the clubs close to them. That explains why communities like Clair-Mel and Wimauma and Dover have become hubs of club activity.

Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has been particularly supportive of the Winston Park Boys and Girls Club in Clair-Mel, even helping it overcome a damaging fire. Now the NHL will lend support this week as part of its All-Star Game legacy. How big a deal is that for the Boys & Girls Club.

Itís huge. Weíve long seen the connection between sports and entertainment and community improvement. If you take the ideals and the mission of the Boys & Girls Club, itís not just an after-school, after-care program. Itís a captive audience of kids where we get to have them play, work on school stuff and pour life skills into them. What better way to do that than using a brand as cool and exciting as Lightning hockey to be that draw. I think Mr. Vinik understands that.

While the outreach of the clubs is helping new communities, there has been conversation about potentially transitioning services at the West Tampa Club. Tell me about the challenges involved with that decision.

Our priority is and always has been to serve youth that need us the most. For 90 years, the Boys & Girls Clubs has had a strong presence in the West Tampa community; serving young people that are now some of the most prominent business leaders in the city. But, as the city continues to grow, neighborhoods are experiencing major transitions and West Tampa is one such community. We have experienced a decline in youth served at this particular Club and are now challenged with the task of deciding if the need in that area is as big as it once was. Though we are committed to serving the families that remain, we also have to keep in mind the resources available to continue operations. Ideally, we want to be available for every young person in every community. And as we continue to look at the broader scope of our focus and mission, we will take a hard look at every conceivable future plan for that site. For now though, we are open, five days a week, in West Tampa, and are serving the families there.

Itís a matter of efficiency?

It absolute is. Sometimes we make these decisions that are tough decisions, obviously, in the publicís eye, but we have not gone about it arbitrarily at all. It follows a pretty careful study on geography and demographics and economic realities. Thatís really the driving force behind the decision. We have to build and allocate resources to where the bulk of our kids are located.

And it doesnít reflect on the clubís overall commitment to the community, right?

Our mission is to serve those in the community. Even though I talk about brick in mortar, the reality is we draw very soft lines around which Clubs serve communities. Those lines arenít so rigid that kids outside the immediate community canít get involved. Weíre never going to close our doors based on a kidís zip code.

In adddition to all you have going on, you and your wife have a 2-year-old son. Whatís that like?

I probably should have started with that (laughs). We decided to do this a little later in life, so heís really changed my focus from looking past child rearing to rolling around on the floor and tossing the ball again. Thatís had a huge impact and weíre having a ball. I have daughters, theyíre all adults now. They still need some attention now and then, but clearly our son is our primary focus .

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at Follow @hoop4you.