The sun was setting just behind the hills of the cul-de-sac in the Blackwood section of Gloucester Township while the man of the hour sat on his porch with an easy smile on a comfortable summer night.
Lamar Harris had reason to be happy and grateful. He may be the most popular resident of the close-knit township after his story of loss and tragedy turned into one celebrating the value of friendship and being a selfless neighbor.
Harris, who celebrated his 40th birthday last Sunday, has developmental disabilities (his reading and writing are limited and he cannot drive) and became the sole resident of his home four years ago, when his brother passed away a year after his father died. Last month, Harris was served papers that he was going to be evicted on Aug. 5 since property taxes on his home had not been paid since his father passed away.
“Devastating,” Harris’s neighbor, Terri Fretz, said after seeing the paperwork. “It was overwhelming. What are we going to do?”
Fretz and a friend, thanks to the support of the Cherry Circle community at large, quickly formulated a plan. They’d start a GoFundMe page in an attempt to keep Harris in his home.
They decided to ask for $50,000, since that was roughly what was owed in back taxes. In less than a week, the GoFundMe goal was reached, with contributions near and far
A former Cherry Circle resident sent $50. Someone from Idaho pledged $150 and prayers. Former co-workers of Fretz, whom she hadn’t spoken to in over a decade, saw her friend needed help and responded. Two middle school girls who live in the neighborhood set up a lemonade stand and collected $220 for Harris’s cause.
The story even travelled across the pond to England.
“So touched to read about Lamar and how his community has helped him,” Lindsey Taylor wrote on the GoFundMe page. “Terri, well done for setting up the page and proving people are still kind and caring. Best wishes from the UK.”
As of Aug. 8, two weeks after the page was started, nearly $70,000 has been raised, almost $20,000 more than the goal. (UPDATE: It’s Aug. 9 and the funds have eclipsed $70,000).
“Everybody around here loves me,” Harris said.
The story is remarkable. But perhaps it’s not as difficult to believe for the people who know Harris best, his fellow Cherry Circle residents.
“There isn’t anyone in this neighborhood that doesn’t know Lamar,” said Jan Pierce, who has lived across the street from Harris for 33 years. “He goes around and around whenever he’s not at work or in church visiting people.”
“He’ll come over and tell you, so-and-so is sick, or that (someone) had their baby,” Fretz said. “Lamar is the news person.”
Harris will mow your lawn. He’ll collect your mail if you’re on vacation. The neighborhood affectionately nicknamed Harris “the mayor of Cherry Circle.”
“He watched the neighborhood for us,” said Michael Green, who lives a few houses down from Harris. “He knows everybody.”
“When my next door neighbor was very sick with cancer, Lamar took it upon himself, he was over there twice a day, he did her trash for her, her mail,” Pierce said. “He went in there and did whatever she needed.”
Just as Harris has looked after his neighbors in the last three decades, they have come through for him in the last month. Fretz recently met with Gloucester Township officials to let them know the back taxes would be paid and to help get his 2019 taxes in order, too.
“We feel like we’re going to have enough money to pay all of 2019 taxes which gives us a head start for 2020,” Fretz said of the GoFundMe donations. “Lamar’s (Supplemental Security Income) and his (part-time) job that he has, his bills are minimal. He doesn’t have a lot of things like me and you. He doesn’t have car insurance and a lot of things. So the biggest bill he has is taxes and you have to prepare for that. So we feel that on paper, mathematically, with guidance, he will be able to sustain himself.”
With only a part-time job (Harris has worked at Rastelli’s since he was a teenager) and the inability to drive, Harris is still limited in his future earnings. Even if his home is saved, it needs work, according to his neighbors.
Fretz has contacted Habitat for Humanity but understands the current GoFundMe campaign might just be the beginning of helping her neighbor keep his home.
If you’d like to contribute to Lamar Harris, visit the GoFundMe page set up for him.