Mission Possible

Passport with a Purpose

Photos courtesy of Jason Harper.

Some people can’t leave well enough alone.

El Dorado Hills resident Jason Harper is a pastor and director of community outreach at Capital Christian Center. He also heads a nonprofit called Be Change, which encourages runners to “run for a reason.” A bit of a runner himself, he made news in 2006 by running 100 miles for the students of Oak Ridge Elementary in Sacramento’s impoverished Oak Park neighborhood. He also leads Character Combine, an annual free confab for area high school coaches and athletes that stresses leadership by example. He’s a dad to two kids; a husband; he’s 39; he and inertia do not get along.

Three years ago, a 12-year-old in his CCC youth group, Eduardo, had an abscessed tooth. When Harper learned the boy had never seen a dentist, he took him to one. For most folks, that good deed alone would’ve been enough. But this is Jason Harper. Afterward, they stopped to get something to eat. “So we went to Taco Bell, and he said he’d never been to Taco Bell.” Never seen a dentist? Never been to Taco Bell? “Then we found out he’d never been outside Oak Park.” And thus began the headwaters of Harper’s latest idea, “I Never…”

It’s tough to see the future if you’ve never been outside your neighborhood. Harper identified others like Eduardo at Oak Ridge, and soon he and his staff were creating an itinerary: first-time experiences the kids could be introduced to on a short road trip. It was printed up in a small booklet entitled “Passport to Purpose,” which you didn’t just get. Any 4th, 5th or 6th grader at Oak Ridge could qualify, but they had to earn it. “We had three things we worked with them on: attitude, academics and attendance. They had to show net gains in all of those areas.” And remember, Harper’s into running. So the kids had to run. “If they completed a fall and spring training program – including a 5K – then they were in.“

That first trip had 24 kids and a convoy of SUVs. Pulling out of Oak Park, they were instructed to open their passports and put a stamp next to, “Never been out of my neighborhood.” Later, at the Oregon border, they put a stamp next to, “Never left California.” A hotel stay that night. Stamp.

Next day, they hit the coast. “We walked them up to the crest of a sand dune and when the kids saw the Pacific stretched out before them…?” Harper pauses. “They’d never seen the ocean…they just took off towards the beach. It was incredible.” Another stamp. Then, they headed further north to Nike’s world headquarters near Portland. “Never owned a new pair of shoes?” Stamp.

The last box in the passport was, “I never thought college was a possibility,” and the last stop was the University of Oregon. They received a complete tour, but had to hold off on that stamp until they returned to Oak Park. Then we asked them to stamp that box, but only if they now believed college was a real possibility.” Stamps all around.

Last year’s “I Never…” trip was to Los Angeles, culminating with a visit to USC. This year’s will finish at UCLA. The itinerary changes some year to year, but the goal doesn’t: get these kids thinking beyond their neighborhood and about their future.

“I Never…” is catching on at other struggling schools, following Jason‘s template but also customizing to the particular school or neighborhood. “Vision is contagious,” he says. “But if it’s not exactly what we’re doing at Oak Ridge, I don’t care. Just do something.” All it takes is a few people who aren’t willing to leave well enough alone.

For more information about Jason Harper, visit bechange.cc.


Find more of Tom's Takes here, and make sure to catch Tom on the Pat and Tom Morning Show on New Country 105.1.

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