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Frisco STYLE Magazine

Ann Harris: 2022 Person of the Year

Jun 01, 2022 ● By Lisa Sciortino

Sitting at the kitchen table in her Frisco home on a recent morning, Ann Harris recounted the story in the Bible’s book of Esther that follows the beautiful Jewish queen who persuades her husband, the Persian king Ahasuerus, to retract an order that would have seen Jews throughout the kingdom massacred.

“It’s the best story,” says Ann, who first became familiar with it during the late 1990s when her husband, former NBA basketball coach Del Harris, gave her a biography of Esther to read. The queen’s story resonated with her. “I read it and it was almost like Holy Spirit just hit me. If it wasn’t for her, all of the Jews would have been annihilated. This was such a God thing.”

Her deepfelt connection to the story may have something to do with the fact that for the past decade, Ann Harris – who is Frisco STYLE Magazine’s 2022 Person of the Year – has herself been on a similar quest to assist and protect an at-risk population: Frisco’s homeless.

Also a tireless advocate and supporter of dozens of area charitable organizations, Ann is the co-founder of The Frisco Giving Tree and StepUP Frisco, an organization and initiative, respectively, that are dedicated to helping those in need. She is also a founding board member of the North Texas Community Giving Foundation, which supports local nonprofits.

Ann is also active on the local political scene: In 2021, she served as campaign manager for Angelia Pelham in her bid for Frisco City Council Place 3 and returned to the role earlier this year in Tammy Meinershagen’s short-but-successful race for Place 2. Over the years, she has also volunteered with the campaigns of other Frisco City Council and Frisco ISD Board of Trustees candidates. 

“I’ve always believed you’ve got to give back,” Ann explains of her philanthropic and political work. “It just feels like God has blessed us, and now we have to help other people.”


 The Coach’s Life

Born Ann Chiarelli, she and her three siblings were raised in Reading, Pennsylvania, by their music teacher/orchestra director/composer father and stay-at-home mother. When she was still a toddler, her parents built, opened and operated a nine-hole public golf course in nearby Exeter Township. 

“That was my playground,” she recalls. “I grew up on that course,” and eventually picked up the sport herself, playing in her first juniors’ tournament at age 10. She continued to tee off throughout her teen years, even though she “really didn’t want to play golf. I wanted to go to the pool where all of my friends were.” Her love of golf grew throughout her life and she played the sport until 2008, when she was sidelined by lower-back issues. 

As a student at the University of Miami, where she majored in physical education, Ann was a member of the golf team that earned a spot in the 1973 NCAA finals held in Massachusetts. She also played on the school’s first women’s basketball team. “We didn’t have a gym, so we played outside on the (macadam courts) in the sun in Miami.”

She considered staying in Miami to reside following graduation in 1974, but a teacher-hiring freeze there prompted her to return to Pennsylvania. She spent a year working as a substitute teacher before learning that her alma mater was in search of a graduate assistant in the physical education department. She took the position in 1976 and spent a year working there while simultaneously earning a master’s degree.

When family friends relocated to Houston, Ann followed and found work teaching at the junior high school level. After three years, she accepted the head coach position at Northbrook High School in Spring Branch ISD, which was launching a girls basketball program. (She also served as the school’s assistant track and freshman volleyball coach.)

“These kids didn’t even know how to dribble,” she recalls of the players. When they played games against schools with established programs, “We’d get beat by 30 or 40 points. It was such a bummer. They were experienced, but we weren’t. As time went on, we got competitive and held our own.”

Just prior to stepping into the high school head coach role in the early 1980s, Ann and a friend attended a charity event where she encountered Del Harris, then-head coach of the Houston Rockets. “The only reason I recognized him was because of his white hair. I didn’t follow professional sports but he was coaching the Rockets at the time. I watched the news at night and the sports (segments) would come on and they would talk about the Rockets and the guy with the white hair was on – Del Harris.”

Trying to secure some coaching tips from him to share with her fledgling high school basketball team, Ann approached Del and struck up a conversation. “To this day, he thinks it was a come on, but I really wanted basketball tips,” she says.

“You can believe that, or you can believe that she was actually stalking me,” Del Harris jokes about the couple’s first meeting. Currently vice president of the Texas Legends, the G-League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks, he is set to be inducted later this year into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “We did talk about basketball that one time.”

What Ann and Del do agree about is that the two formed a friendship that grew over several years. “Every now and then, our paths would cross, or I’d go to a (Rockets) game and say hello,” she recalls. They wed in 1987 while Del was head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. She ended her decade-long teaching career and relocated to Wisconsin.

 

 The Coach’s Wife

Thus began Ann Harris’ tenure as an NBA wife. Del went on to become head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and assistant coach of the Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets. 

“It’s interesting,” Ann says of being a coach’s wife. Early in their marriage, she traveled with him to games and has attended every home game of Del’s career. “It was fun just kind of being in the spotlight.”

Milwaukee, she says, “was a great place because it was a big city but it was a big family town.” While residing there in 1990, the Harrises welcomed their son, Nik (Del also has four other children from a previous marriage). 

The chilly Wisconsin winters proved difficult for Ann. With a new baby and her husband away for 42 games each season, “I had to get out of the house – I was going stir crazy,” she recalls. She frequently bundled up her son, put him in the stroller and braved cold temperatures to walk around the neighborhood “just hoping that someone would see me and say, `Come on over.’”

In 1994, the Harris family relocated to Southern California when Del began coaching the L.A. Lakers. Their first year there “was tremendous,” Ann says. “You’re starstruck. You go to the grocery store and there’s The Bionic Woman” star Lindsay Wagner, with whom she eventually formed a friendship. Ann also watched as celebrities including Jack Nicholson and Kevin Costner sat courtside at games.  

Being an NBA spouse presented Ann with some of her earliest opportunities to participate in philanthropic work. “With every team, the wives had an organization that they would do charitable work with,” she explains. While in Milwaukee, she became involved with the local chapter of Special Olympics and remains pen pals today with one of the former athletes she met through that program. “He sends me cards and I write him back. He must be about 55 years old now.”

In the late 1990s, Ann underwent what she refers to as a “spiritual awakening.” Raised in the Catholic faith, she says she was guided and mentored by Del (who had been a pastor during his 20s) on a journey to rediscovering and further exploring her faith and spirituality. “From there, I was led by the Holy Spirit for the community work that I did,” she says. The couple currently attends Gateway Church and is also involved with outreach programs at New Life Community Church, both in Frisco.


 Giving Back

In 2000, the Harris family relocated to North Texas when Del went to work as the Dallas Maverick’s assistant head coach under Don Nelson. Searching for a “safe place” to raise Nik, the family settled in Frisco, which at that time boasted less than 34,000 residents. 

“Pretty soon, we knew a lot of people in the community,” Ann says. For about the first decade after moving here, she busied herself tending to her son’s school career and extracurricular activities. (She coached the basketball teams on which he played during grade school.)

Following Nik’s high school graduation in 2008, “That’s when I was all in for the community” and other charitable endeavors, Ann says. “You’ve got to give back.” 

In 2001, she and her husband established the Del and Ann Harris Foundation for Christian Principles, which awarded scholarships to students through the Frisco Education Foundation as well as those attending Christian colleges. (The Harris' foundation has since been become a donor advised fund.) Over the years, the couple has also financially supported various local and international church ministries as well as North Texas-area nonprofits and has funded scholarships for students at their respective alma maters. 

Throughout the years, Ann has volunteered with and otherwise assisted numerous local nonprofits and other organizations including Frisco Fastpacs, Grace to Change, Emily’s Place, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Collin County, LifeTalk Resource Center and Cornerstone Ranch, among others. Also an animal advocate, she’s spent countless hours on site at Becky’s Hope Horse Rescue interacting with the critters that reside there. “That’s my happy place. I loved going over there to feed the horses or play with the goats. It’s just so much fun.” 

 In 2012, Ann says she first became aware that there were then approximately 157 Frisco ISD students experiencing homelessness. “I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. She went to an event recognizing Homeless Awareness Week that was also attended by the then-director of City House, a nonprofit shelter for infants and children through age 17 as well as young adults 18-22 that is the only one of its kind in Collin County.

“I asked if they would put one of their girls’ or boys’ homes in Frisco” and expand the program beyond Plano, Ann recalls. “The director said they would if we could get it funded.” 

Over the next two years, Ann and Del Harris served as development chairs for the expansion project. Alongside others from the community, they orchestrated various fundraisers including golf tournaments; middle school danceathons; the Frisco’s Got Talent shows staged at local high schools; and Ducky Palooza, which saw thousands of rubber ducks bobbing along Frisco Athletic Center’s lazy river. They also collected private donations. 

By 2014, more than $700,000 had been raised for the City House expansion – enough to purchase residences in Frisco to house homeless girls and boys as well as establish a resource center for young people. “If there was a student in the school district who needed help, they would be able to go there,” she says. 

The five-bedroom City House home for girls, located in a Frisco subdivision, was purchased that year and filled with donated essentials. “We had oriental rugs donated, we had a new leather sectional sofa, artwork,” Ann says. “It was a beautiful home.”

Just as the first young residents were preparing to move in, the subdivision’s homeowner’s association distributed information to neighbors explaining who would be residing in the house and how it would be utilized. Some residents balked and City House ended up in a legal battle with the HOA. Although a county-level court ruled in favor of the nonprofit, the HOA later escalated its litigation to the Dallas courts, at which point City House opted to settle the case. 

In the end, only six youth residents lived in the Frisco house and plans for the boys’ house and resource center were nixed. The home was sold three years later, and City House went on to purchase and open a residence in Plano for its young-adult clients. 

The loss of the Frisco City House facility was disappointing. “After all the work we did for two years (raising) the awareness and asking people for donations – just everything – it was hard,” Ann says.


 Being A Blessing

Other endeavors that Ann has undertaken in service to Frisco’s homeless and at-risk populations have experienced greater success. 

Also in 2012, she approached longtime local Realtor® Jan Richey and Frisco resident Amy Davis with an idea to gather 50 women who would each be willing to contribute $100 quarterly to assist local residents (mostly youths, single mothers and their children) experiencing a financial need. Within a few weeks, the women had co-founded The Frisco Giving Tree, which continues today courtesy of some 60 women who willingly give $400 annually for the cause. 

“Everybody thinks that in Frisco everybody has everything they need and want,” Richey says. However, the reality is, “Your next-door neighbor could be in dire need of something and in desperate pain, but most (people) aren’t going to know. … If everybody just looked outside, there’s somebody on their block that can use help – they just don’t know it.”   

The motto for The Frisco Giving Tree, Ann explains, “is `God has blessed us to be blessings to others.’ I just feel like God has blessed us and now we have to help other people, whether it’s financially or through influence. Wherever I can help, I want to be able to do that.” 

Three years ago, Ann partnered with longtime Frisco resident Christine Ortega and established an initiative called StepUP Frisco with the goal of supporting existing homeless programs in the city and surrounding areas so that they may expand their facilities. 

“We just said to each other, `We’ve got to do something,’” Ann recalls of the women’s initial discussions about the initiative. “Is anyone else concerned that pretty soon (Frisco is) going to have people (living) on the streets like in Dallas? Because that is going to happen as we grow. Collin County is going to grow. We have two places – The Samaritan Inn for families and singles, and City House for kids. They’re full all of the time, and as we grow they’re going to stay full.” 

Ortega is executive director at Volunteer McKinney, which connects volunteers with area nonprofits. She says Ann is not only philanthropic, but also possesses the ability to “really put things into action, which is how I am, so we’re kind of kindred spirits in that way. We’ve just been a great team. … She’s a person of strong faith and this is part of her living that out. She’s not going to step aside when there’s something that needs to get done. … She wants to care for people and make sure they have the best opportunity in the world and to give them some hope.” 

Ann is also a founding trustee of the North Texas Community Giving Foundation’s board. Established in 2014, the grant-giving organization financially supports area nonprofits and also hosts the popular annual Texas Big Star Half Marathon & 5K race in Frisco. What she enjoyed about her work with the foundation “was that we raised money to give back to the community and the more we raised, the more we could give.”

Shannon Swarbrick, a longtime Frisco resident and owner of the company Dallas Closet Design, is also on the foundation’s board. She has worked closely with Ann and says, “She is amazing at going ahead and asking people for what she needs help with and really bringing people together. … I really feel like her driving force is the giving back and getting behind something that’s really going to help the community.” When involved with a project, she says, Ann “is in the trenches. She’s putting up signs. She’s going door to door. … She’s never the first to leave. She works very hard.”

Larry Harris, Ann’s stepson, agrees. The former Frisco resident (he and his family now call Gun Barrel City, southeast of Dallas, home) is the former general manager and current director of player personnel for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

“When Ann is really locked into on something, whether it’s Becky’s Hope or the Boys & Girls Club or anything that’s going on in Frisco … it gets to the point where that’s all she really wants to talk about,” he says. “You can just see the passion she has for it. … There’s not many conversations that don’t revolve around the city of Frisco – what’s going on, what’s happening and how she can get engaged. Everything matters to her in the civic area and … when she puts her mind to something, she’s going to follow through with it. She is a bulldog when it comes to anything that she has a passion for.”


 Honors and Accolades

For her many efforts, Ann Harris has garnered a slew of accolades and awards from numerous private and community organizations.

In 2013, she was named one of the Top 10 Women in Collin County by Dallas-based Star Children’s Charities for her work on the City House expansion project. Two years later, she received the Spirit of Frisco Award from the Frisco Chamber of Commerce and, in 2016, the Spirit of Collaboration Award from the Junior League of Collin County as well as the City of Frisco’s Community Star Award.

Her son, Nik Harris, is especially proud of his mother’s many accomplishments. “For most of us … we must resign ourselves to simply being these check-writers that fund the institutions doing important work. My mother, on the other hand, is one of the few putting her hands in the dirt, building these institutions we philanthropize. She provides charity – not only financially, but by dedicating herself to an unglamorous life of making calls, dealing with rejection and navigating bureaucracy to actualize ideas she believes will help her city.”

In 2018, Ann received the first-ever Woman of Hope Founders Award from the Frisco-based National Breast Cancer Foundation. It was presented two years after she had been diagnosed with and waged a successful battle against the disease.

The year that she received her diagnosis, nine of her female friends and family members also learned they had the disease. “I thought, `This is really weird. Is this a God thing that I was supposed to get it to help them along their journey?’” she says. 

Del Harris recalls his wife’s cancer battle as a “pretty scary” time. However, he says Ann’s outlook “was always good. She trusted her doctors immensely … and it all worked out. We’re both of great faith and prayed through it as we have given a lot of other people our prayers and there have been awfully good outcomes.”

Good outcomes were also experienced when Ann helmed the election campaigns of Frisco City Council Members Angelia Pelham and Tammy Meinershagen.

Meinershagen’s Place 2 campaign earlier this year was over nearly as soon as it began: The six-day race concluded when incumbent Shona Huffman ended her candidacy over health concerns and Meinershagen was named to fill the seat. “We were just getting started,” Ann says of the campaign work. Nevertheless, had the race continued, “I knew she was going to win. Everybody loves Tammy.”

Pelham’s 2021 Place 3 campaign, on the other hand, was an arduous, eight-month race, Harris says, marked by multiple candidate forums, knocking on doors and calling on voters to convince them that Pelham was the best candidate for the seat. “It was exhausting, but I kept going. I had the energy,” she says.

“I started with a campaign manager and I ended up with Ann as a sister, and I think we will be connected forever,” Pelham says. “Ann is probably one of the most generous, kindhearted people I’ve ever met. She’s like a dog with a bone when it comes to commitment. She’s relentless. I’ve seen Ann stand beside me when we had mudslinging. I think she probably lost some friends because of her commitment to me, and she remained faithful until the end. … There’s a resilience in her that will not quit, and during the campaign she would not let me give up.”

By all accounts, Ann Harris isn’t one who throws in the towel in the midst of an endeavor.  

Currently, she and Del are serving on the board of ISF Skin Care, a women-owned company that produces a line of clinically tested, pharmaceutical-grade skincare products (which Ann helped develop) that are composed of natural ingredients and suited for all skin types, which may also assist in treating myriad skin conditions and ailments. 

While she has admittedly slowed down her busy schedule in recent months, Ann says she is always up for lending a hand whenever one is needed. “I want to still be involved in some way. I don’t necessarily want to lead a cause, but if someone said, `This will be good. What do you think about helping out?’, I’m there.”  

Each morning, she pauses before a decorative, crystal-studded crucifix that hangs on her living room wall. “I’ll put my hand on that cross and I’ll say, `Thank you, Jesus, for the breath that I’m breathing today. Show me what you want me to do to help others.’”      


Lisa Sciortino is managing editor of Frisco STYLE Magazine