Episode 5 of AMERICAN DOERS, a new 12-part video series featuring original thinkers, innovators, craftspeople, risk-takers and artisans across the United States.
Shamayim Harris wasn’t sure she’d survive after her 2-year-old son Jakobi was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2007. “I remember waking up the next morning, thinking, ‘I’m living through this pain that I thought would kill me. I’m not afraid of anything anymore,’ ” says Harris, 51, of Highland Park, Michigan.
Six months after her son’s death, the single mother of three channeled her grief into action, embarking on her dream of transforming a half-abandoned nearby block into a sustainable eco-village. “I saw this blighted block every day on my way to work, and I wanted to do something with it.”
The first step was a winning $3,000 bid on a vacant home on Avalon Street. With help from a friend, and money she’d pieced together from her paycheck and a tax refund, the former school administrator bought the house and moved in. She then set up a nonprofit, The Moon Ministry, started receiving donations (via a successful Kickstarter that has since reached over $240,000) and the real work began. Harris and a group of volunteers removed mattresses, toilets, liquor bottles — even an abandoned boat — from the neighborhood. “It took a while to get to green grass,” she says.
Nine years later, Harris owns 10 properties within what is now called Avalon Village, including an after-school homework house and a vacant lot she’s transformed into a park dedicated to her son. Jakobi Ra Park is home to community events, like an annual apple-picking party and reggae concerts. She also has plans for activity courts, a greenhouse and a café. “I want to be an example,” she says. “I hope people are inspired to do work in their own neighborhoods.”
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Harris, who is affectionately known as “Mama Shu,” has a supportive team behind her, including city officials, licensed contractors and local youths who are learning useful trades while contributing to Avalon Village. “I am proud of our community family member taking blight and turning it into something positive,” Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp tells PEOPLE.
Harris hopes to have the project completed by 2018. And she’s motivated by the memory of her son every step of the way. “Building this village has been healing,” she says. “I think Jakobi would be very proud. I hear his voice telling me, “Go, Mommy, go!”