At first glance, the Hall County Habitat for Humanity ReStore is simply a place where unwanted items are dropped off to be sold at a discounted price, with the funds used to support Habitat’s efforts.
But to John Harris, the ReStore is a lifesaver — quite literally.
He started working at the store at 2380 Murphy Blvd. in Gainesville in 2016, the same year he was diagnosed with cancer.
“Instead of staying home and having a pity party, I was able to forget about the problems and do some good in the process,” said Harris, now 76 and in remission.
He jumped in to volunteering at the ReStore to keep busy, just like he always had been. He said volunteering made sure he didn’t have enough time to even think about his cancer.
“We were all inspired to see his diligence, despite his trial,” said Dave Sneed, the ReStore director. “It was just really powerful.”
It began, Harris said, when “I actually had some pain that turned out to be my spleen.”
A doctor suggested Harris have his spleen removed, and told him to get an abdominal screening to check it out. He did, and it revealed he had a type of cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Harris had never been the type of person to slow down, though. He was always busy and he definitely wasn’t going to let cancer be the first thing to stop him.
For the better part of his life, Harris traveled the world. He makes it clear that he hasn’t just visited 11 countries, including France, Norway and Brazil; he has lived in them.
“I’ve had the best career anyone can think of,” Harris said. “I’ve done things most people can only dream of.”
He grew up in England and went to college at the University of Cambridge, then to the University of Detroit Mercy in Michigan. He finished with a major in business and started out working as a purchaser in the tractor division at Ford Motor Co.
That’s what took him all over the world, giving him opportunities he said he wouldn’t trade for anything. Even the experience he had as a trainee at Ford, installing the oval logo on the front of every vehicle that came down the assembly line, he said he’s thankful for.
After retiring from Ford in 2000 after more than 30 years, Harris started looking for other jobs and didn’t have much trouble finding one. He sent out three resumes, got three interviews and ended up having to choose between Kansas, Minnesota and Georgia.
“I had no retirement plans,” Harris said. “I hated retirement. I hated waking up with no place to go.”
He ended up choosing the Kubota Manufacturing of America Corp. in Gainesville, though he had one small reservation.
“Gainesville was the most attractive geographically, but I was a little scared I wouldn’t speak the language down South,” he joked.
I had no retirement plans. I hated retirement. I hated waking up with no place to go.John Harris
He fit in well, though, and enjoyed his time at Kubota until he retired from the industry for good in 2009. He went on to teach English as a second language at the University of North Georgia and then helped out at a couple of nonprofits in Gainesville.
Then he landed at the ReStore, where he spends about 35-40 hours every week as a volunteer sorting through everything that comes to the store, except for furniture. He loves researching the items and finding out how much they’re worth.
He said he sometimes even finds little gems that make the job even more fun.
“He keeps it light and fun,” Sneed said. “He’s always trying to engage in a lighthearted way with customers and other volunteers and that’s important.”
Even with everything he has already done in his life and everything he has been through, Harris has continued to stay busy by volunteering, giving his time to help others, and he encourages others to do the same.
“Volunteering can literally save your life,” Harris said. “It saved mine. I have no doubt about it.”