Donovan Harris | A pillar in the Akron community

Reporting, writing and photos by Nahla Bendefaa

If you make your way to 1010 Hammel St. in South Akron, you will find a retail building with signs for Mrs. Dianne’s Shop & Save and Fresh Cuts Barber Shop. Inside the convenience store, you might find Donovan Harris behind the counter.

Donovan is the owner of the building, the store manager, and a pillar in the Akron community.

Donovan Harris has been involved with local reentry coordination programs since 2014. First, he was leading weekly support meetings held by the Summit County Reentry Network. Next, he became the Reentry Program Coordinator with South Street Ministries in 2018. 

In addition to the convenience store and barbershop, the building also has space for a forthcoming neighborhood grill. 

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“To truly help me when I returned from incarceration, it had to be somebody there who had been through it. It had to be somebody that had walked that walk before I walked it,” Donovan says. 

Donovan tries to model his mentor, Perry Clark of Truly Reaching You, in his own work. 

He strongly believes in the importance of having the people closest to his mentees be part of the solution. Donovan describes his work as a “safety net” for people coming back to Akron from jail or prison: He aims to make sure people who were formerly incarcerated have their needs met as soon as they return.

“The moment you are sentenced, that’s when your reentry to society starts. You are responsible for what you do while you are incarcerated to facilitate that change for when you get out,” Donovan says. “In between reentry, going to prison, the ultimate goal is restoration, is to be a restored citizen. It’s to show society that I deserve everything that I obtained by paying taxes, by taking care of my own responsibilities, by being a good neighbor.”

South Street Ministries is a local non-profit organization that is committed to the physical, socioeconomic and spiritual well-being of the South Akron and Summit Lake neighborhoods. They offer programming ranging from summer camps and after-school programs for children to reentry programs for people who were previously incarcerated.

South Street Ministries’ reentry program services include weekly support meetings as well as administrative services, such as resume building and ID reinstatement, in order to help remove the barriers to employment that returning citizens face. 

The approach to reentry is built around the three Rs: Reentry, Redirection, and Restoration.

“In between reentry, which is when you are sentenced and go to prison, [and] restoration, where you are back in a position in society that you are meant to hold, is the redirection process,” says Donovan. “Where I work is to redirect people. So it’s to help people to see something different than your former way of dealing with situations […] and redirect you towards a different way of thinking or executing the things you are trying to accomplish.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Donovan would go to prisons and build relationships with people who would be returning to life in Summit County — their needs, their plans, what they wanted to do when they got out. Then, Donovan says, “we would be there on their front porch to catch them when they came home. That’s kind of that safety net. So now that we’ve removed some of these barriers, let’s see where we can get you to next.”

One of the main themes throughout Donovan’s work is sustainability, whether that is in regards to reentry or his business or teaching others financial literacy. The important thing, he says, is to make sure that people are given the tools to carry on the work on their own.

“What I do with South Street [Ministries] is my calling, while the store, that’s my legacy. That’s what I leave my family.”

Mrs. Dianne’s Shop & Save is named after Donovan’s own mother. It is an example of what running a business in a community-minded approach that goes beyond profit could look like.

“This is about being a social enterprise with a dual bottom line. So our bottom line is the money and the people. For us, the people come first,” Donovan says. “I want them to feel that they trust us… [like] ‘I can go and say, hey Donovan, I’m hungry, and Donovan will bring us some food to feed my family.’ That’s the social aspect of what I do. If we see people as people, and not dollar signs, the money will come because the people will keep returning.”

Donovan also uses his position as a business owner to highlight the importance of economic opportunity and financial literacy. Donovan’s mentorship of community members covers everything from being a good business owner to managing property in a sustainable way. 

The driving factor is helping community members in achieving their own goals.

“I truly believe people are supposed to succeed, whatever success means to them,” Donovan says. “And those who don’t succeed, who may fail — I just see that we keep a system in place for them when they come back.” 

Nahla Bendefaa is a writer, photographer, and content creator from Akron, Ohio by way of Kenitra, Morocco. She enjoys rewatching Friday Night Lights, painting and confusing Spotify’s algorithm while making her way through a seemingly never-ending tea collection.