When former bobsled Olympian Devon Harris was a teenager in Kingston, Jamaica, he played soccer bare-footed during gym class. Even though it was his favorite sport, he could not represent his school because he did not own a pair of soccer cleats.
“So I know what it’s like to be not clothed properly,” Harris said in front of about 200 attendees who were at the Oct. 26 annual Transforming Lives Breakfast fundraiser hosted by Lynnwood-based Clothes For Kids. The nonprofit was raising money for more than 5,000 students in Snohomish County who will need school wardrobes during the 2023-2024 school year.
Harris was one of the original members of the four-man Jamaican bobsled team – featured in the movie Cool Runnings – who had less than six months to train for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. While the team did not finish the race because they crashed in the third run, they inspired generations of Jamaican winter Olympians, including Alpine skier Benjamin Alexander (Beijing 2022) and bobsledders Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian and Carrie Russell (PyeongChang 2018).
After Harris talked about the selection and training process that he went through to get into the Olympics, he shared a photo of himself, his teammates and his coach Howard Siler looking at a two-man bobsled in Siler’s driveway in Lake Placid, New York.
“Now this was September of ‘87,” Harris said, pointing at the photo on the screen. “Remember when the Olympics were? February of ‘88. And that’s the first we’ve seen a bobsled.”
That week, Harris and his teammates watched an American bobsled team practice the running start at an ice rink. The team invited the Jamaicans to train with them. “Mind you, this is the first time we’ve seen more ice than you can fit in a tall glass of lemonade,” Harris said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this bobsled thing is harder than I thought.’ But we survived the weekend and returned to Jamaica to continue our preparations at the newly constructed Jamaican Winter Olympics Sports Complex.”
Turns out that “complex” was a makeshift bobsled on a concrete pad. Showing a photo of himself and two teammates pushing the bobsled, he told the audience that everything about their form was wrong. “But there’s a greater life lesson here,” he said. “You should never ever wait until everything is perfect. There’s never gonna be a perfect time. You jump off the cliff and learn to fly on your way down. But that’s how we trained.”
During an interview after the Clothes for Kids fundraiser, Harris said that getting to know other Olympians in Calgary was the “most impactful” for him.
“We were at the height of the Cold War, and I was trained to think that everyone behind the Iron Curtain was evil,” he said. “And then here I am at the Olympic Village and I’m playing Pac-Man. Off to my left is a dude from Poland and off to my right is a guy from East Germany. They’re supposed to be ‘evil’ and I realize that we share the same hopes and aspirations, and the thing that separates us is ideology. We really are one. The thing about the Olympics is that you see that we have so much more in common than what separates us.”
Joan Morrison, executive director of Clothes for Kids, said that she picked Harris to be the keynote speaker because she recalled as a child watching the 1988 Winter Olympics with her parents.
“I remember sitting on the floor going, ‘How the heck can someone from Jamaica where there is no snow and persevere, see opportunities and pave his own path, make it to the Olympics?’” Morrison said.
A Clothes for Kids board member emailed Harris asking if he would like to be their keynote speaker, and he agreed. “We met virtually,” Morrison said. “He’s in New York, and Clothes for Kids is definitely near and dear to his heart because he’s working with kids in Jamaica who struggle with the same things – not having shoes, not having basic needs.”
Harris agreed to come to Seattle two days before the fundraiser so Morrison and the staff could show him the Clothes of Kids location in Lynnwood, where kids in need can select school clothes, shoes and outerwear. They also took Harris to some of Seattle’s landmarks, including the Space Needle and one of the piers.
After visiting the Lynnwood store so Harris could learn more about Clothes for Kids and its positive impact on the community, Harris and the staff took the ferry to Kingston where they saw three orcas swimming in Puget Sound. “I didn’t tell him that we’re going to Kingston – I know – and then we started to talk more about his hometown Kingston. And then he was like, ‘Really, we’re in Kingston?’” Morrison laughed. “Keynote speakers come and do their own thing, but I really want to offer to be a good host. It was really wonderful for him to donate his time to do this.”
Clothes for Kids is a nonprofit that provides clothing and shoes to students from low-income families in Snohomish County. Founded in 1984 by Sharie Ennis, a PTA member at an Edmonds School District elementary school, Clothes For Kids started out in a school classroom in Lynnwood before moving to its present-day storefront near Meadowdale High School.
“It costs about half a million dollars for our operation budget, and we’re 100% donations – grants and fundraisers as well,” Morrison said. “I’m hoping to pull in $30,000 from this breakfast, and then we have an upcoming auction in April. We’ve had city support from Lynnwood and a few other government agencies – which (we) haven’t in the past – which is a huge win for us.”
During its 2022-2023 fiscal year, Clothes for Kids provided 5,261 students with 15,783 shirts, 26,305 pairs of socks, 21,044 pairs of pants and 5,261 heavy coats – and a matching pair of shoes. The nonprofit has a dedicated volunteer group that cleans, sorts and hangs the clothes in the store, which is set up like a retail store but without a cash register.
“With a thousand more kids served last year, I just know it’s going to continue to increase, and I don’t want to have to turn anybody away,” Morrison said.
Learn more about Clothes for Kids and donate here.
— Story and photos by Nick Ng