Boston student-athlete thrives after early turmoil

Attacked by her knife-wielding father when still in the womb, Yonetta Harris has built a life that touches many

Yonetta Harris, (center), 18, a three-sport athlete, graduated from O’Bryant High School on June 13.
Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff
Yonetta Harris, (center), 18, a three-sport athlete, graduated from O’Bryant High School on June 13.

Yolanda Harris calls her daughter Yonetta “my survivor baby.’’

Nineteen years ago, an assailant slashed Yolanda eight times, vowing to kill her and the fetus she was carrying.

The mother balled up on the bathroom floor of their Roslindale apartment, covered herself with her injured hands, and screamed and prayed as her assailant flailed away with the foot-long knife he had pulled from the kitchen drawer.


Today, a new life awaits that daughter, Yonetta Harris. She will enter the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester on nearly a full scholarship this fall, having spent the last four years balancing rigorous academics, part-time work at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the assorted demands of a stellar three-sport athlete (soccer, basketball, softball) at O’Bryant High School in Boston.

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Hers is a remarkable story of domestic violence, followed by recovery and perseverance.

“She’s my survivor baby,’’ her mother, Yolanda, says. “Yes, she is . . . we are both survivors.’’

Yonetta Harris — known as “Netta” to her friends — knew nothing of the attack on her mother by Yonetta’s father until she was in the seventh grade.

Born Oct. 5, 1995, with her father already in jail, she recalls a day a little over five years ago when she came home to find her mother crying at the kitchen table. It was March 12, 2009, exactly 14 years after the stabbing.


“And my mom’s like, ‘I am just glad we are alive,’ ’’ recalled Netta, who knew virtually nothing about her dad. “And I said, ‘What do you mean, what do you mean?’ I mean, I am clueless.’’

The attacker was Stanley Harris Sr., Yolanda Harris’s husband and the father of the yet-to-be-born Yonetta, as well as the two toddlers, Yonealya and Stanley Jr., who were in the apartment that night. Young Stanley was fast asleep. Yonealya, 3 at the time, today says she remembers listening to the attack, and all the while continuing to play with her favorite toy, a stuffed duck.

Yolanda Harris, then 26, recalled how she screamed, trying to ward off the attacker.

But he wouldn’t stop. “ ‘I’m going to kill this baby!’ ’’ Yolanda Harris recalls him yelling. “ ‘You ain’t having another kid of mine!’ ”

Both Yonealya and young Stanley would toddle through the bloody trail that led from bathroom to living room couch, where Yolanda sat, hands mutilated, waiting for police and ambulance to arrive. Prior to bolting across Franklin Park to where his mother lived on adjacent Blue Hill Avenue — where police eventually flushed him out from under a parked car — Stanley Harris placed the 911 call to report that he assaulted his wife.

Yonetta Harris with her mother, Yolanda. Yonetta will attend the College of the Holy Cross on nearly a full scholarship.
Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff
Yonetta Harris with her mother, Yolanda. Yonetta will attend the College of the Holy Cross on nearly a full scholarship.

“I remember all of it,’’ said Yonealya, who now lives in Jamaica Plain with her boyfriend and infant son. “My main memory from my childhood is my mother’s pool of blood.’’

‘She’s my survivor baby . . . we are both survivors.’

Stanley Harris Sr., who died last year at age 51, was sentenced to two years in prison for the attack on his pregnant wife, convicted for assault and battery with a deadly weapon, the case tried in West Roxbury District Court. Three years later, in 1998, he pleaded guilty to armed robbery with a knife and was sentenced to two years at Cedar Junction.

Yolanda Harris said she divorced her husband around the same time he was sentenced in 1995.

When she learned of the attack years later, the disclosure left Netta crying, saddened, stunned about what her mother and siblings told her about what her father had done.

“I just said, ‘How the hell does that happen?!’ ’’ said Netta. “And they were like, ‘You have to hear his side, too.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to hear nothing from him.’ I didn’t talk to him till I was 17.”

It wasn’t until her father became ill late in his life, with cirrhosis of the liver, that Netta drew closer to him, during his stay at a Hyde Park rehabilitation facility. They connected about a shared love of basketball, once finding a common favorite player in Nolan Smith, a point guard for Duke (2007-11).

Netta, a Globe All-Scholastic, played point guard for O’Bryant. She also was a midfielder for the soccer team and a lefthanded catcher for the softball squad.

It was during her visits, Netta said, that her father admitted what he did to her mother.

“I didn’t get to ask,” she said. “I was going to ask him, but he felt it coming. And he said, ‘Whatever your mom said, she’s right, and I am sorry.’ ’’

All three of Netta’s varsity coaches at O’Bryant, each of them effusive in praise of her play and character, were unaware of her family backstory. Though it is not something the Harrises hide, it also isn’t something they often share.

Yonealya said she once discussed the details as part of a class discussion in high school. Yolanda, who hosts her own community TV show called the “Yo Love Show’’ on the Boston Neighborhood Network, has revealed pieces of it on the air, proud to proclaim that she is a survivor of domestic violence.

Barbara Barrow-Murray, a longtime BNN Community TV producer, was unaware of the depth of domestic violence her host once endured.

“I’d heard [about] some of the violence, the heroin addiction, something about him dying,’’ Barrow-Murray said. “But that’s pretty much it — not the blood-and-guts stuff. That’s not a family-hour story.’’

Throughout high school, Netta has worked at Brigham and Women’s as part of the hospital’s Students Success Jobs Program with the Boston public school system, typically logging up to 10 hours a week. Now that school is finished, she has added more shifts and hours. She started out in the pathology lab, but more recently, she has worked in a social services-related field at the hospital’s Center for Community Health and Health Equity.

Maisha Douyon Cover, her supervisor, says Netta has brought “this nice light and energy to the workplace.”

“A lot of the work we do here in the office is very similar to her family [experience] and a lot of the people she knows,’’ Douyon Cover said. “So I think it became really relevant for her, realizing that, ‘Wow, these issues and someone’s overall health can be impacted by all these things and I can have a role in changing that.’ ”

The Harris home is now on the top floor of a three-decker in Jamaica Plain. Yonealya, soon to turn 23, moved out late last year to set up her own home about 10 minutes away. Stanley Jr., who recently turned 20, was recently incarcerated at the South Bay Correctional Facility on a variety of charges, including larceny, his mother said.

Netta, 18, whose high school graduation ceremony was June 13, intends to work all summer at Brigham and Women’s and also at Fenway Park, where she is a hostess in the State Street Pavilion.

“I love talking,’’ said Netta, a huge baseball fan. “People walk in, I seat them, tell them what’s on the menu. And I see some baseball. The job is awesome!’’

Sedric, 13, Yolanda’s youngest child from a different father from her other three kids, is on summer vacation from Boston Latin Academy. When Netta leaves for Worcester, Yolanda and Sedric will be home alone.

“I’m not working, so it’s difficult times for us,” Yolanda said.

The money Netta earns at the Brigham and Fenway is vital in putting food on the table and paying other bills. Sedric also tries to pitch in, Yolanda said, with a few dollars from doing chores for neighbors.

Through all of the financial limitations, throughout everything, Netta ranked 12th in her class of some 250 at O’Bryant with a 4.02 (weighted) GPA. She also excelled in the three sports, was named MVP multiple times, and her three coaches — Gertrude Smith (basketball), Jason Joseph (soccer), and Bridget Ryan (softball) — all praised her leadership and coachability.

Each of them expressed surprise upon hearing the backstory of domestic abuse, how Netta endured in a broken home, and better understood the close relationship they’ve witnessed between mother and daughter.

“Her story makes all the more sense,” Joseph said, noting the “unique bond . . . that all of her coaches have seen’’ between Netta and Yolanda. “No matter what else was happening in their lives, Yolanda made it a point to come out and watch Netta.’’

For now, Netta figures, her competitive sports days are done. As much as she’d like to play sports at Holy Cross, she is focused on maintaining that 3.70 GPA to keep her scholarship.

With a first-semester course load of math, writing, political science, and foreign history, she figures she’ll need every available hour to win the game in the classroom.

It is, indeed, a new life awaiting Yonetta Harris, a young woman who knows there are only so many chances out there for everyone; she plans to make the most of this one.

“I thought about that a lot, when I was younger,’’ she said, asked to ponder how her father’s attack long ago could have ended differently, more tragically. “But as I got older, it’s like, why think about what could have happened when you can make a difference now?’’

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at
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