Philanthropist Turned Mental Health Awareness Advocate Jan Harris Opens up about Keeping Her Late Son’s Legacy Alive

Remembering Michael.

Every second of every day, our bodies ask us to breathe in and out—a necessary function that can center our spirit and bring peace to the soul. But what happens when that breath catches on the unimaginable? When we experience a loss so deep that it’s a challenge to come up for air?

Gari Fredkin, Jan Harris, Nanci Fredkin, with Jack and Liz Weingart

In 2015, Jan Harris’ world was forever changed when she lost her 26-year-old-son Michael to a tragic boating accident. “You can’t imagine—as a mother—getting a call, and hearing someone say, ‘Your son is dead,’” she says. “As a mother, a piece of my heart was gone forever.” This indescribable pain sent Harris spiraling into a deep depression. Today, alongside her family, she works on finding the strength to share her story, continue to build the Michael Harris Foundation, and simply breathe again.

Michael was the oldest of three sons and a doting big brother to David and Richard. “He was liked by everyone who met him,” his mother recalls. He attended Menlo School and loved playing basketball, then went on to the University of San Diego and became head team manager for the university’s men’s basketball team. After receiving a degree in developmental psychology, Michael moved to San Francisco and completed his master’s in counseling psychology at Santa Clara University. “He was such a great listener and always had this need to help others,” Harris says. Just four months before his death, he had excitedly joined the counseling faculty at his alma mater, Menlo School.

Michael’s compassionate nature and loyalty were reflected in the large crowd that attended his celebration of life at Menlo Church in Menlo Park. “I think that anyone’s legacy depends on how many lives you touch,” Harris notes. “And, for Michael, the church was overflowing.” Before the service, the family had come together to form the Michael Harris Foundation, honoring Michael’s commitment to lifting others by promoting mental wellness among adolescents and emerging adults. “We wanted to make sure we did all we could to keep his legacy alive,” she says.

(Front row) Rick Santamaria, Lucas Santamaria, Angelina Farinas, Chris Boone, Jenny Smith, with Jan, Peter, and Richard Harris. (Second row) Alex Curtis, Lindsay Barnett, and Matt Bouret

But a deeper pain from the loss was beginning to creep in. Still deep in multiple lawsuits surrounding the boating accident, Harris had an anger that wouldn’t subside. “I had a full-fledged nervous breakdown,” she reveals, “I was in a place where I had suicide ideation. I knew I was in deep trouble.” She decided to enter an eight-week program at The Menninger Clinic in Houston, a move she describes now as, “the best thing I ever did for myself. There is such a negative stigma on mental health facilities. But I believe everyone could benefit from it.”

After returning home, Harris and her family banded together to grow the Michael Harris Foundation. “It was a way to channel our grief into something positive,” Harris says. The family wanted to support a cause that would mirror Michael’s passion for mental health and his commitment to improving the lives of adolescents. They found this and so much more within the Palo Alto-based Children’s Health Council (CHC). “Today, suicides among our youth are staggeringly high,” Harris shares. “And the amount of kids that are on antidepressants is astonishing. So if you can touch these kids early, then you can get them the help they need.”

The foundation, alongside the CHC, has impacted the community in many ways, providing therapy services for 350 teens, 60 of whom were considered high-risk. The number of adolescents with access to an Intensive Outpatient Program increased by 50%, while financial support for adolescents in low-income families was also expanded. It has provided training for 183 CHC and local community clinicians and given free parent education to over 120 community parents. “My boys and husband Peter have taken primary roles in giving the foundation meaning and legs to stand on,” Harris says. “It has become a family’s journey to find meaning from our loss.”

In partnership with Michael’s brothers, some of his friends banded together to form the SteelMike Shootout, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament at Menlo School created in Michael’s honor. Last year, 20 teams and over 70 players participated—and the foundation received over 150 donations. “For us, this event is not about raising money,” Harris says. “It’s a special way that his family, his friends, and the community can honor him and keep his spirit alive.”

As for Harris, her journey to a new normal takes constant focus and grit. “After a loss like this you’re a totally different person,” she shares. “And not a day goes by when I don’t cry. But, now, I can meditate, be present, find laughter, and enjoy my family. And, most importantly, I can focus on the solace that the foundation continues to give myself—and so many others—after our tremendous loss.”

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