Mansfield Mission Center director guides rapid growth

January 28, 2023
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Carmin Harris has weathered a pandemic, a move and expanding programs at Mansfield Mission Center. (Photo by Bobby Quinten/Mansfield Record)

By Bobby Quinten

Mansfield Record

Mansfield Mission Center executive director Carmin Harris has lived and worked in Historic Downtown Mansfield for several years. Sitting with Harris at a table inside Dirty Job Brewing just blocks from her home, one senses the passion she has for the downtown district.

“I love downtown,” Harris said. “It is like a community within a community.”  

Harris cites Dirty Job as a prime example of those communal bonds.

“This is one of my favorite places because the owners care about the downtown community and the local businesses here. They love giving back to the community,” Harris said.

Harris even worked at Dirty Job Brewing for a month in 2021, offering to help as the microbrewery struggled to hire staff.  

“I learned a lot in one month,” Harris recalled. “I learned more about customer service in a fast-paced environment and about the necessity of flexibility and quick responsiveness.”

Harris has been the executive director at Mansfield Mission Center since December 2015. She was looking for a fresh opportunity and change of scenery when she saw a job posting for executive director of the Wesley Mission Center in Mansfield, Texas.  

“The job description sounded amazing,” Harris said. “My only question was ‘Where is Mansfield?’”

Harris accepted the opportunity to run Wesley’s community mission. After almost two decades as a consultant who taught nonprofits and faith-based organizations how to help their communities, Harris found herself implementing in reality the theories she had been teaching others.  

“To say the least,” she said, “I had an epiphany.”

“I realized I had been teaching perfect principles to organizations working in a very imperfect world,” she said. “Now I was the one working in their world, where I found that so many factors impact your ability to help people. I needed that perspective.”

Harris declared her first two years at Wesley Mission Center as “hard because I was wearing all hats at all times, to the point that the hats really were wearing me.”

Thankfully, Harris had Teresa Sherwood in her corner.  Sherwood preceded Harris at Wesley Mission Center. Sherwood became both a mentor and a good friend because “Teresa modeled grace and humor in any situation. She could lighten our spirits in an instant.”

Sherwood eventually became chair of the organization’s board of directors.

A turning point for the ministry occurred in 2018. The nonprofit had spun off from First United Methodist Church a few years earlier, yet it remained known as Wesley Mission Center. It was then-Mayor David Cook who suggested changing the organization’s name to “something with Mansfield in it. The mayor wondered if it would help us to partner more broadly with other churches, businesses, and community groups in the city,” Harris explained.  “It did!”

The rebranded Mansfield Mission Center moved from the First United Methodist Church campus into a strip center it owned on East Broad Street.  The clothes closet and food pantry morphed into a larger, challenging hybrid of benevolent ministry and retail business. Powered by community donations, the thrift store operates with a few paid staff and an army of volunteers.  Today the Mansfield Mission Center Thrift Store accounts for approximately 50 percent of the Mission Center’s total annual revenue.

In 2019, Mansfield Mission Center acquired the Linda Nix Caring Place Clinic from Mansfield Cares.  The clinic on West Broad Street provides free health services to low-income residents, including nutritional programs tied to the thrift store’s food market. Residents also are offered financial assistance and coaching, employment coaching, and help with their tax returns.

Most recently, Mansfield Mission Center also established a volunteer chaplaincy program to assist residents at times of spiritual need.

“Having someone say to you that it will be OK can be one of the most impactful things for a person in need,” Harris explained. “You do not have to fix the problem for them. They just need you to sit, have a cup of coffee, and be present.”

These expanded services may seem daunting.

“Just because your organization can do something does not mean it makes sense to do it,” Harris said. “However, in our case, we are very clear about what our strategy is:  to build a community where every person thrives. We and our board decided what would be the best use of our resources, and we have wonderful well-established community partnerships to accomplish that strategy.”

The community it serves seems to agree. On Jan. 26, the City of Mansfield awarded Mansfield Mission Center its True NORTH Award as the Community Group of the Year.  Mansfield Mission Center thanked the city on Facebook for “this very gracious recognition of our partnership,” adding “we are blessed to serve in a city that serves so well together.”

Harris’s Mansfield boasts a growing population that dwarfs Big Sandy, Texas, the rural East Texas town of 1,200 where Carmin McKinney grew up.  Raised by a single mom along with two siblings, young Carmin dreamed of being a flight attendant so she could fly from that tiny town and meet other people.

She never did serve snacks on a passenger jet, but the adult McKinney did fly on a work trip to Michigan, where she met and fell in love with a Canadian man. They married, and Carmin MacMillan moved to Toronto, Ontario. The East Texan spent 18 years in Canada’s largest city, a bustling metropolis with 6 million people.

After coordinating sales and marketing for a graphics company for five years, Harris received an opportunity in 2004 that would change the course of her life.

“I was the volunteer coordinator in our church, where several executives with Canadian Baptist Ministries also attended,” Harris recalled. “One of them approached me with a job that he thought I could do very well.”

She became the Global Programs Manager for Canadian Baptist Ministries, where she led program strategies, hiring, and training for international mission projects. While there, Harris developed her passion for helping nonprofits grow and deepen their impacts in local communities.

Harris remembered, “Canadian Baptist Ministries intentionally facilitated projects based on the critical needs of the community.  We researched those needs.  We met with locals.  We were extremely relational, always with the goal of empowering the local church to carry on eventually without our help.”

Harris coordinated strategic planning and volunteers for healthcare, education, and economic development in five countries while at CBM. During her tenure at Canadian Baptist Ministries, Harris completed her bachelor’s degree in religious education at Tyndale University.  

In 2010, Harris joined World Vision, where she spent four years consulting with nonprofit organizations in inner city Toronto.  While at World Vision, Harris earned her Master of Arts degree in organizational leadership from Eastern University.

“I thought someday I would be in the ministry,” Harris said, “but I enjoyed training nonprofits so much that my studies went a different direction.”

Harris so loves to teach that she still teaches empowerment and community engagement for Canadian nonprofits as a virtual instructor with the University of Toronto.

After a divorce, Carmin MacMillan “felt led to come home” to Texas. Wesley Mission Center provided Harris that opportunity as their executive director.  She moved to Mansfield in the summer of 2015.

“One of the things I love about Mansfield is the awareness that people have for others,” Harris said. “There is a desire to partner and create new things, such as downtown and the parks system.”

She also noted the “vibrant” faith community here that has been helpful to Mansfield Mission Center’s success. Harris finds the city’s greatest challenge today is the cost of housing.

“I would hope that people who work and worship in Mansfield also can afford to live here,” she explained.

Harris admitted that opening the relocated, rebranded, and expanded thrift store in May 2018 was a shock to everyone’s system.  

“We all had to learn to be nimble and flexible,” Harris recalled.  

She learned quickly the challenges in running and marketing a business.

“Cash flow. You are constantly monitoring cash flow,” she said. “Cash flow can be unpredictable, and it can be so seasonal for nonprofit organizations.”

The executive director said there is tension in running a faith-based, ministry-oriented organization as a retail business.  

“You have to be both-minded,” said Harris, who encourages her team to innovate.  

“As a leader, I like a lot of freedom, so I try to give our leaders freedom, too. There are so many ways to achieve our mission. If you have an idea, let’s try it and fail fast if it’s not going to work.  People should not feel confined.”

Harris’s emphasis on creativity and new ideas was severely tested in March 2020. Coronavirus forced the thrift store to close, cutting off half of Mansfield Mission Center’s revenue overnight.

“How do we keep people employed?  How do we keep providing services?  Getting the center through COVID was the hardest thing I have ever done,” Harris recalled, “but it also was the most gratifying work.  It was character-building, to say the least.”

Harris’s management team began using virtual options for internal communications. Mansfield Mission Center promptly instituted full-time, in-person curbside pickup for groceries. The Linda Nix Clinic offered telehealth appointments for medical consultations, and those remain an option for patients today. Ultimately, while a few staff members lost their jobs, no mass layoff occurred.

“The pandemic reinforced that we must adapt to stay on top of where our clients are,” Harris said. “Our program model was flipped on its end. Our program was Benevolence to Empowerment, and overnight we flipped back to benevolence to meet their needs.”

Harris confessed the pandemic took its toll on her personally.  

“I cultivated the worst habits,” she said. “I saturated myself with bad news on TV and stayed mentally fatigued all the time.”

As the pandemic subsides, Harris said she is much more positive about the future.

In 2022, Mansfield Mission Center opened new corporate offices at 75 Regency Parkway in a building it shares with the Mansfield YMCA.  Last spring Harris achieved her childhood dream of earning a degree from the University of Southern California, completing her Doctor of Education in organizational change and leadership.

Carmin then married husband Jason Harris on June 24 in Granbury. Carmin and Jason live downtown near the dog park.  Jason is doing well after a recent health scare. They cook nutritious meals together, walk the dogs, and dabble in home fermentation.

“If I could change anything in my life,” Dr. Carmin Harris responded, “I wish I would have been more relational and less task-oriented.  I wish I had sat with all the incredibly helpful people I’ve known and learned all I could from them. Like in the Bible story, I wish I had been less Martha in the kitchen and more Mary learning at the feet of Jesus.”

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