CEHHS staff member Sharon Harris created, awarded for nonprofit

November 13, 2017

As she taught herself how to live with Lupus, Harris supported others in their journey too.

Sharon Harris
Sharon Harris
When receiving the Neubacher Award Certificate of Appreciation, Sharon Harris met Anna Ercoli Schnitzer, University of Michigan Council for Disability Concerns coordinator and James T. Neubacher Award Committee chairwoman.

Sometimes life has other plans. Sharon Harris not only believes this—she’s lived it.

Harris, College of Education Health and Human Services dean’s suite administrative assistant, said a chronic illness diagnosis at 22 changed her life’s path. And it steered her toward one of advocacy.

Harris—who was diagnosed with Lupus in 2002—started Lupus Detroit, a local nonprofit organization for Lupus awareness. She helps lead a monthly support group for the autoimmune disease. And she began a Detroit-based walk for Lupus that recently raised more than $40,000.

Harris, a native Detroiter, said before Lupus these are not goals she would have listed. But it’s not because Harris didn’t want to help. It’s because she didn’t even know what Lupus was.

“When you make plans, God laughs. Then you are put on the path you were intended to walk,” said Harris, who won a $24,000 scholarship from the Detroit Free Press and Ford Motor Co. in high school to study journalism. “No one expects to live with a chronic illness, especially one you had never even heard of. But you make the best with the cards you are dealt. I’m not going to lie, some days it’s very difficult. But for each day you wake up and get out of bed, it’s important to live your purpose.”

She wanted to be a journalist because she enjoys people—something apparent when she greets people as they walk into the CEHHS dean’s office. Harris, who started at the university in March, gives support to students and is eager to offer office support to help push CEHHS and the university forward.

“I’ve always wanted to be with people, find ways to make things better for others and get the word out,” Harris said. “It’s what energizes me now; it’s what energized me before my diagnosis too.”

When she was in her early 20s and in college at a university in Florida, Harris worked at the campus radio station, newspaper and broadcast news station. She said she felt ill her senior year, but attributed it to stress from her busy schedule and preparing for finals.

“My mom was in Tallahassee for graduation and said, ‘What’s wrong with your face?’ We always are playing, so I replied, ‘What’s wrong with yours?’ Then I could see that she was serious,” Harris said. “I looked in the mirror and my skin was blotchy and discolored and I had a rash across my face. I promised my mom that I would visit a dermatologist once I moved back to Detroit after graduation.”

She said there were other symptoms too—like swollen joints, gastrointestinal issues and hair loss. Less than two months after earning her diploma, Harris was diagnosed with discoid lupus (lupus of the skin) and systemic lupus (lupus of the blood/organ systems).

“I had a disease that affects millions. Three out of 10 African American women are affected by Lupus. As an African American woman, how did I never hear of it? Most people don’t know a thing about it. Even when I had obvious symptoms, no one around me—even some doctors—knew the signs,” she said, noting signs vary but frequently include a facial rash, weight loss, hair loss and joint pain.

Harris said by the time she received the correct diagnosis, she was so weak and sore that she had difficulty walking. She lost 30 pounds in less than a month. She had two  strokes. She spent months in bed at her mother’s before the treatment began to improve her condition.

“Because it is a chronic illness, I knew there would be times I’d feel better between the flare ups. So I started thinking, ‘What would I do if it was my last day on Earth?’ I was going to make what I could happen.”

While checking off her goals—which included seeing the world as a flight attendant and having her own business as an eyelash specialist—she felt a pull to represent the face of Lupus and educate others about it.

So she walked into the Lupus Alliance of America office in St. Clair Shores looking to buy a T-shirt and to volunteer—and came out with a communications job offer. From there, she began to meet other “Lupus warriors” and hear their concerns about finances, research and needed support.

“I decided to take the successes that I had at the Lupus Alliance as encouragement to create my own lupus nonprofit," she said. "The forms that needed to be completed to establish a 501(c)3 were intimidating but I did it. On Jan. 29, 2012, the State of Michigan recognized Lupus Detroit as a nonprofit. That was one of the best days of my life.”

Now celebrating its fifth year, Harris sees how people are positively impacted by Lupus Detroit’s work—through scholarships, emergency fund grants, and overall support.

Harris attributes Lupus Detroit's accomplishments—like raising more than $40,000 at their annual walk without having a physical office or staff— to the five-person board of directors working in unison and genuinely having a heart for Lupus warriors.

For Lupus Detroit’s work, the university recently recognized Harris’ "outstanding service to the disability community" with a Certificate of Appreciation at the 2017 James T. Neubacher Award Ceremony. Harris also was awarded a 2013 Spirit of Detroit award and a 2014 Essence magazine mention.

“Like I said, things didn’t turn out like I expected them to. And that is ok. I have a new normal, with new goals, new battles to be won, a new purpose,” she said. “It was all preparation to get me right where I’m supposed to be.”

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