GREENVILLE — Nellie Harris always wanted the best for her child. So when the then 47-year-old single mother heard about Taekwondo classes in town she signed her son, Chance Harris, up for the twice-a-week lessons.
“I’m a single mother,” said Harris, “and in the world we live in, I didn’t want him to grow up and have to depend on other people to fight for him.”
Fast forward seven years to last week, and Chance’s transformation from a eager 3-year-old to a 10-year-old black belt is complete.
But the Harris family journey has been a long one, to say the least.
In 2007, a complication during surgery caused her to lose sight in her right eye.
She was eventually diagnosed as legally blind and is forced to wear dark shades to protect her eyes.
“Your whole life changes,” said Harris. “It’s like someone stole a part of me.....I could have lost both of them, but God is so good.”
But without a ride to Taekwondo lessons, Nellie was still forced to walk her son, Chance, three to four miles on Monday’s and Wednesday’s. Nellie estimates the routine of her walking Chance to his class lasted for about five years before the instructor, Rickie Johnson, intervened.
“She was walking (Chance to class) in the rain, sleet and snow,” recalled Johnson, who has been teaching the sport for 15 years. “I realized she was doing that and I told her ‘I will pick him up and take him home. You don’t have to do that anymore.’”
For the last two years, Nellie recalls, Johnson has been picking Chance up religiously twice a week. The Harris family lived not far from Johnson’s workplace at the time, Masterfoods — now known as Uncle Ben’s.
“It was a load off my shoulders. I was just so thankful,” said Harris. “I asked him if I can do anything for you, just let me know.”
Johnson said when he first met both Nellie and Chance, he could sense their determination.
“She said she didn’t want to lose her child to the streets,” recalled Johnson.
Johnson also remembers the first time he met Chance.
“He was only 3 years old and he did a counter-clockwise,” Johnson recalled. “I said I’ll take him.”
Chance’s road to a black belt, however, was a long and bumpy one for both he and his mother. Nellie’s out-of-town eye surgeries and Chance’s Taekwondo tournaments forced them to travel a lot.
“Sometimes we had money,” Nellie recalled, “sometimes we didn’t.”
“We walked, hitch-hicked rides....we just kept pushing.”
Nellie still remembers those days of walking Chance to Johnson’s Taekwondo classes. She would walk him there, walk back home to gather his school clothes for the next day, and then return to pick him up.
“Sometimes it was cold and raining,” she recalled. “Chance helped me a lot of times. And I could kind of feel where I was going because I was used to the route.”
Nellie’s determination must have trickled down to Chance, said Johnson. Chance has been one of his star pupils.
“The average 10-year-old kid can't touch him,” said Johnson.
Chance, an A-student, is one that his peers look up to, said Nellie. Especially since he became a black belt.
The day after he earned his black belt, a group of friends was at the front door to walk with him to school. They wanted to be in the presence of the 10-year-old Taekwondo master.
“I was scared to let him walk to school,” said Nellie,” but I went on and let him walk. I called the school to make sure they all made it safe.”
The now 54-year-old, who said she has special lights at home to accommodate her disability, is thankful for Johnson and expects even more from Chance.
“We'll never forget Mr. Johnson,” said Nellie. “....We're going higher (and) further....(Chance’s) goal is to be the youngest Sensei.”