“When he went back to the shelter for a visit between helping Alabama win the national championship in January and becoming the No. 24 overall pick of the NFL draft in April, Harris noticed the carpet. He made a mental note to change it when he got the chance.
A few months later, thanks to a partnership between his foundation and Lowe’s, Harris helped GRIP replace the carpet with a dark hardwood tile throughout the 12,000-square-foot, two-story building.
And he didn’t stop there.
While Harris, 23, watched through a video call from the Steelers’ facility last month, nearly 100 volunteers, including his family, descended on GRIP to start fulfilling the wish list Harris and his mother, Tianna Hicks, compiled from their experience living in the shelter and through meetings with the organization over the summer.
The additions included new appliances, a computer, a grill, a rock wall, a playground, landscaping, pavers in the parking lot and a fresh coat of light blue-gray paint that looks almost iridescent when the light catches it.
“We have people that donate money, but having Najee is different,” said Siu Laulea, who was the case manager for Harris’ family during its stay at GRIP. “He wanted to upgrade the place. … [The residents] feel like it’s more like a home. It’s not like a facility, because of the color of the floor we have. And with a different-color paint, it’s just a warm feeling. The vibe we do get from the residents, it’s a different vibe.
“It’s more like a happy vibe.”
Once uncomfortable sharing his experience growing up homeless, Harris is now using his platform to make an impact in various ways.
“I found out that I could help people, my story could help people — or it will make them feel like they’re not alone in a way,” Harris said.
‘You’ve got to look at the bigger picture’
Harris was furious with Marcus Malu.
A trusted friend, Malu was also Harris’ trainer, and he ran a gym in the Antioch community where Harris went to high school.
Like Harris, Malu, an Antioch native, knew what it was like growing up in difficult circumstances.
One day around his sophomore year, Harris overheard two classmates talking about him and how he lived in shelters growing up.
He confronted them and asked how they knew. Then, he went to Malu.
Malu told him he shared part of Harris’ story at a strength and conditioning banquet the day before. He thought Harris’ story could help inspire the students.
”‘Man, I’m not happy with that,'” Malu remembers Harris telling him. “I said, ‘Listen, cut me off if you need to, or be mad if you have to. But sooner or later, you’re going to have to tell your story. It’s part of who you are.'”
Harris didn’t speak to Malu the next two weeks. Then, he walked back into Malu’s gym and sat down wordlessly. He didn’t have to say anything for Malu to know Harris had forgiven him.
“I was mad as hell at him, but I didn’t understand it,” Harris said. “I didn’t understand my story, I guess, like that. I guess they call it a testimony. I didn’t understand how it would help other people. I didn’t get the bigger picture at that time. I thank him for that, though. He helped me out with opening up.”
Harris is starting to understand how to impact change, naming his newly formed nonprofit organization Da’ Bigger Picture Foundation after realizing little things can add up to make a difference.
“If all of us help each other out somehow, then we all can just try to make a change into something,” Harris said. “It took me all these years to really figure that out, so I wanted to help somebody else, because people think that success or whatever you want, prosperity, anything, just happens like that.
“It’s not really that simple. You’ve got to look at the bigger picture.”
It’s a message Hicks started instilling in Harris and his siblings during their formative years spent in temporary housing.
Harris and his family worked at soup kitchens, Christmas toy drives and Special Olympics events….”