Damon Harrell is the newest member of the St. Francis House Board of Directors. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Damon – via Zoom, of course – so we could all get to know him better.
Could you share a bit about your background?
I was raised in Madison, Wisconsin, home to the University of Wisconsin, which is what brought my parents there for graduate school and where they stayed. Because it’s a university town, Madison has more diversity and more cultural opportunities than you’d normally get in a city that size. It was a good place to grow up. So good that I followed in my parents’ footsteps and went to UW, where I majored in behavioral psychology and criminal justice. That was with an eye toward law school until I realized that no one I knew was happy in law school.
So, I switched things up a bit and found my way to Merck and a career in the pharmaceutical industry. Along the way, I picked up my MBA at Wharton. After a number of years at Merck, I moved to Boston to take a position at Alkermes, a biopharmaceutical firm that has a central focus on mental health. A year and a half ago, I was named Vice President of Marketing for the Alkermes Psychiatry Franchise.
How did you first learn about St. Francis House?
We have my daughter Lauren, who’s now a high school junior, and for years around the holidays, we would go through the requests we’ve gotten from various charities and pick a few that she’d like us to donate to – a decision she’s very thoughtful about. A couple of years ago, she chose St. Francis House. What caught her eye was that part of the mission is feeding the hungry, which she connected to my volunteer work with Bristol Lodge Soup Kitchen in Waltham.
Tell us about your experience at Bristol Lodge.
Pretty much since joining Alkermes, I’ve been part of a group that goes into Bristol Lodge once a month and prepares, from scratch, a three-course meal – salad, entry, and dessert – for 80 folks, many of them experiencing homelessness. Fast forward a few years, and my colleague who’d been leading this effort stepped down to take a different position away from Boston. There was the running joke that the person who had all the knives and sharp utensils was the person in charge. When this person left, he gave me the sharp utensils and told me “it looks like you’re the one with the bag of knives, you are now in charge.” And so, I found myself the lead organizer…
Were you a cook prior to that?
My mother was an excellent cook, and growing up, my family pretty much always sat down for dinner together. But if there was something that you wanted that wasn’t on her menu plan, she pretty much told us to fend for ourselves. So I did. Fast forward, and, in my house, we all love to cook and are all about family meals. I’m more of the experimenter, I like to try new dishes, and since the lockdown, I’ve been trying a lot of slow-cooker dishes.
Post-COVID, we’ll have to get you into the SFH kitchen.
You’ve got a deal.
What drew you to joining the St. Francis House Board?
When a colleague on the Board asked if I were interested in becoming a member, the opportunity was very appealing to me. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of active volunteering with organizations that focus on kids, education, diversity, people in need. Some of that volunteering was ongoing, like, the monthly meal at Bristol Lodge. Some of my other volunteer activity has been more focused on single events. I really liked the idea of being involved with St. Francis House because it would be ongoing, because there are a lot of things going on there, and because of the continuum of care that it provides individuals.
Because mental health is often part of the picture for the guests of St. Francis House, the work also dovetails with my professional responsibilities. At Alkermes, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to work with mental health groups – and this has included getting to know people who suffer from substance abuse, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and other mental health conditions. I’ve developed tremendous empathy and respect for those living with these challenges. And I love the fact that St. Francis helps them do so.
Have you had any other board experience?
A number of years ago, I became part of a group of parents with kids in the Bedford Public Schools who wanted to find a way to better support the Metco students who were commuting out to our schools from the inner city, as well as children from Hanscom Air Force Base. We were looking for ways to make sure that we provide a welcome environment, and make these kids feel a part of the Bedford Community Over time, our group realized that our mission of fostering inclusion, diversity, and racial equity would be better served if we were set up as a non-profit. So we established the Parents Diversity Council, with a slightly broader mission statement, and I’m a founding member of their board.
What do you do in your no doubt endless free time?
For one thing, I’m a volleyball Dad, as my daughter is on the Bedford High team and the Mil City club team. I also have two black Labs, Lucky who’s an easygoing girl, and Scout, a boy who doesn’t seem to be outgrowing puppy mischief. I like to spend a lot of time outside, which is a lot of time out hiking with the dogs. And I’m also a pretty avid reader, and always have at least one book going. At present, it’s Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun.
Anything you’d like to add?
Just that I’m delighted to be on the St. Francis House Board and I’m looking forward to digging in deep with the organization and its mission.