Monday, March 30, 2015

Elmer Smith | Old hoops rivals, now neighbors, team up to teach an orphanage in India about AIDS

THEY GREW UP a few miles away and a world apart.

Bernard Harris, 53, was the undersize center on an overmatched Yeadon High School basketball team. Arnold Coleman, 52, was an all-star point guard for Darby-Colwyn High School's perennial state-championship contenders.

Arnold was one of eight brothers raised in a loving but broken home in the blue-collar wards of Darby. Bernard's dad, while not rich, owns a trucking company. They lived on a tree-lined street in suburban Yeadon.

Arnold and Bernard met twice a year on the basketball court in games invariably won by Darby-Colwyn and in summer leagues and youth social functions in Delaware County. They knew each other. But they were not friends.

"We met on the court," Bernard Harris said. "But that was about it.

"I couldn't walk through Darby in those days. It wasn't a gang thing. But he had so many brothers and cousins . . . they had turf, if you know what I mean."

Today their houses are close enough that they can carry on a conversation from their separate decks in Yeadon, where both now live.

But those conversations are rarely about their old on-court exploits.

Harris, a doctor and public-health administrator, and Coleman, an information-technology executive with Verizon, talk about how they can make the skills they've acquired in their professional lives available to people who couldn't afford them otherwise.

They have hooked up in an outreach to an orphanage in a village in India where Coleman provides technical assistance and literacy programs for Verizon. Together, they are providing health literacy, specifically AIDS information and materials.

"I had been to India to set up IT programs for underprivileged youth," Coleman said, "but I told him that we first had to do literacy programs there."

"I heard him speaking so passionately about this orphanage that he visited," Harris recalled. "I told him I wanted to work with an orphanage and that we could help provide literacy using AIDS education.

"I am president of the Coalition of Providers of AIDS Care. COPAC had been looking to support orphans around the world affected by AIDS."

They combined contacts and resources and created a structure that allows Harris to provide direct aid to the orphanage, bypassing the red tape and administrative hassles that snag other efforts.

What that limited partnership between old rivals has spawned even more than their help for the orphans in India is a push to team up with other African-American professionals in efforts closer to home.

"People will wonder: Why do you have to go to India to help people?" Harris said. "We happened to see a problem, we just gave help where it was needed.

"We do a lot here, too. I work with the black clergy here to get people to understand that nobody has to get sick and die from AIDS.

"Arnold is involved with literacy programs at Boys and Girls Clubs and the Wilmington Police Athletic League. We believe that African-American professionals need to get involved in this and other efforts."

"I don't know if we need to start a foundation here and enlist other professionals," Coleman said. "But we started talking around Christmas about how fortunate we've been and about what more we can do."

They want to form a team a lot like Coleman's Darby-Colwyn teams, with enough talent for every task.

"We went head-to-head," Coleman said. "It was an intense rivalry and he was one of their best players."

"But his team was so strong," Harris recalled. "You couldn't key on any player. That's hard to beat."

It took a trip to a destitute village in India to get them together. But they are on the verge of building a team that is hard to beat.

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