As a child, Harrison Phillips remembers accompanying his father to a construction site where volunteers from Habitat for Humanity of Omaha helped a family build a new home.
He was a pint-sized “gofer” on the site with an important job: handing tools to his father.
It was the beginning of what has become an enduring commitment to public service for Phillips, a rising junior and defensive tackle on the Stanford Cardinal football team who has found ways to combine studies, sports and service as a college student.
During his freshman year, while enrolled in Race, Ethnicity, and Linguistic Diversity in Classrooms: Sociocultural Theory and Practices, Phillips volunteered at the Mural, Music & Arts Project to fulfill a course requirement.
“It was the program that introduced me to service life here and made me passionate about serving,” he said.
Every week that quarter, Phillips and another Stanford student rode their bikes to East Palo Alto, where they worked as teacher’s assistants in the project’s History through Hip Hop Program. During the eight-week program, participants – ranging from young teens to young adults – learn how to write, produce and perform original songs.
As part of their Stanford course, Phillips and his classmate had to propose a new curriculum for the program. They created lesson plans for a curriculum on producing music videos. The Stanford students helped the teacher with lesson plans and assisted students with spelling questions.
As a sophomore, Phillips took Education 171, a course in early childhood education with a focus on mathematics instruction for student volunteers with Preschool Counts, which serves East Palo Alto youth at St. Elizabeth Seton School.
“I’m a vocal and boisterous person and I was the biggest one in the room,” said Phillips, a Cardinal defensive tackle who stands 6-foot-4-inches and weighs 290 pounds. “I didn’t have any problems acting the fool or acting goofy to get the 4-year-olds interested in numbers,” he said. “The plastic food items were very successful in teaching kids about numbers. I would pick up a cookie and say, ‘Oh, this cookie is good! Oh, you want to buy the cookie? This cookie costs five coins.’ You have to make things interesting and fun so they don’t really notice that they’re learning how to count.”
Last year, Phillips also offered one-on-one tutoring to two third-grade students at Costaño Elementary School in East Palo Alto through Ravenswood Reads, which helps students in kindergarten through third grade improve their decoding and comprehension skills. The program is a partnership of the Haas Center for Public Service, the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Ravenswood City School District.
Under the program, tutors assess the reading levels of each child, choose books for them to read and tailor weekly lesson plans to the individual needs of students.
Phillips worked with one student who had a speech impediment.
“He would spell words the way he pronounced them,” Phillips said. “I would say ‘cat,’ but with his speech impediment he could only say ‘ca.’ He would spell it that way – without the ‘t,’ because that’s the way he was saying it. That was a challenge we had to overcome together. He was doing really, really well one day and I said, ‘Wow, you’re doing exceptionally well. You’re so smart.’ He gave me an odd look. I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘No one’s ever called me smart before.’ That really hit me. I gave him a big hug.”
Phillips connected with the entire third-grade class, not just the students he was tutoring. “They liked playing on me, and they were sports fans, so we talked about sports,” he said. Phillips, who is majoring in sociology and in science, technology, and society, with a minor in education, is an active member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes on campus.
“Every Friday morning we serve breakfast at the homeless shelter across the street from campus, near the Town and Country Village shopping center,” he said.
Phillips also serves as a mentor in Playmakers, an academic, fitness and mentoring program headquartered in Folsom, California. In 2014, Phillips helped bring 50 awestruck kids to a football game in Stanford Stadium, followed by a pep talk on academic achievement.
“They had seen me play, and they had a high level of respect for me, so they listened when I told them I had done the same readings when I was a kid,” he said. “I talked about the strong academics it takes to get into Stanford, and told them I would be checking up on them next week to see if they were doing their readings.”
Phillips raised money to launch a Playmakers program in Omaha, Nebraska, his hometown. He visits the program during school breaks and during the summer.
“I’m the playmaker, and the kids are my playmakers,” he said. “All of them have jerseys with Phillips 66 on the back. That’s my number.”