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Ministry gives schools access to at-risk students

Oscar Harris builds bridges between Spokane schools and community resources.


In both his work with the Spokane Public Schools (SPS) and with Ready 2 Serve (R2S) ministries, Oscar Harris builds bridges to equip, nurture and inspire people as they pursue their goals and dreams.

He holds to clear lines between his work as chief officer of family and community engagement with the school and his ministry, which has partnered with several SPS programs.

For example, R2S has hosted resource fairs that draw diverse populations and at-risk students with whom the schools seek to connect.

With both SPS and R2S, he has provided youth with mentors to intervene and encourage students to stay in school.

Oscar knows the importance of mentors. His uncle, who served at Fairchild Air Force Base, was his mentor, bringing him for a semester of high school to Spokane from his hometown of 300 in Moro, Ark., in the segregated Bible Belt of the Mississippi Delta.

After graduating from high school, Oscar moved to Spokane in 1995 when he was 18. In 1996, he married his wife Christina.

"I found life in Spokane a good culture shock," he said. "It was healing to see the races mixing, in contrast to the separation in Arkansas. I loved it and settled here, attending local churches, engaging in the community and providing resources for people who didn't know about all the social services we have available."

Oscar worked with Honeywell, Central Remix and Agilent, and traveled for several years with a music group.

In 2006, he earned a bachelor's degree in history at Eastern Washington University (EWU). His minors were in social work and music. He earned a master's degree in social work in 2008 at EWU and a school principal certificate in 2016 at Gonzaga University. Online, he completed a doctoral degree in education in transformational leadership from Concordia in Portland and a school superintendent certificate in 2020 from City University of Seattle.

While at EWU, Oscar started working with schools in parent education and substitute teaching. He began working full time with Spokane Public Schools in 2009.

His department with SPS is responsible for restorative interventions to keep students of color in school. That includes Native education, Every Student Succeeds, a foster care liaison program and EPIC (Encouraging Positive Intentional Connections) mentoring.

"I see schools as a microcosm of what is happening in the community—hearing staff needs and serving as a communication conduit to connect families to resources," said Oscar. "We build bridges by partnering with the community for prevention and intervention."

R2S, which Oscar started 20 years ago, also builds bridges.

"We began a downtown program serving breakfast and offering a light inspirational service for homeless people at the Mid-City Concerns Meals on Wheels building," said Oscar.

"We realized the people who came faced greater needs than food, so we pivoted to address other aspects of their needs," he said.

Since then, R2S has moved to its own building at 8104 E. Sprague Ave., where it offers social services, networking, counseling and leadership training, as well as worship and Bible study.

"Our vision is to provide the missing link in social services. As a multicultural multi-ethnic ministry, we focus on reconciliation, restoration and redistribution of resources," he said.

R2S has provided peer counseling through Access to Recovery's teen substance abuse program.

"As one of God's bodies of caring believers, we supplement services," he said, noting that R2S connects with Pastor Shon Davis' gang ministry, The Lord's Ranch, other churches and leaders of color.

Oscar connects SPS to communities of color and families of students who have disengaged from schools. He helps re-engage them to complete high school and go on to college through the SPS Building Bridges program.

Under a 2015 grant with the school district and police department, R2S recruited and trained community members, including pastors, as mentors to work one-on-one with students and staff at two schools. Three mentors met during lunch with five to six youth each for a year.

Oscar made it clear to pastors there would be no proselytizing.

For him, Jesus' ministry was about providing resources to meet needs, not proselytizing.

"We emphasized protocols of how to mentor in schools," he said. "Mentoring puts a positive adult in the lives of teens to open them to see opportunities.

"We had success in retaining students," Oscar reported.

The program gained national recognition for tackling gang challenges and improving school safety. It continues as EPIC mentoring.

"There are still challenges, but not at the same level as before," said Oscar, who is also helping the National Gang Institute develop a resource guide schools can download.

As part of its informal partnering with high schools and Community Colleges of Spokane, R2S also coaches high school and community college students in filing FAFSA and WAFSA financial aid applications so more students can afford to attend college.

R2S offers informational events for high school seniors and their families to increase college enrollment.

Oscar is also an adjunct faculty member at EWU and Whitworth, where he teaches leadership classes.

His wife, Christina, who helped him start Ready 2 Serve, serves as administrator and teaches groups.

She earned a bachelor's degree in human services and women's studies in 2011 at Gonzaga University and an online master's degree in business in 2013 from Concordia in Chicago.

They have eight children—five biological children and three daughters who consider them parents—and two grandchildren.

Growing up in the farm community on the outskirts of a town of 1,000 and going to high school in a town of 15,000, he experienced segregation.

"My family has been in Arkansas since my grandmother and grandfather Charlie Palmer purchased 20 acres and gave each of their 12 kids property to build homes. I was raised in a community mostly around relatives," he said, "but we experienced a lot of racism and bigotry."

In Spokane, in contrast, Oscar has rarely felt unwelcome or threatened because of his race.

"Here I meet individuals different from me, but the majority do not judge or threaten me. Most treat me with dignity and respect," he said.

"I preach a loving God and a faith that does not have divisions," he said. "We need to be brothers and sisters in our hearts."

For information, call 230-0269 or email

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March 2024