While Dr. Carri Kennedy-Harris’ career is what first set her community involvement in motion, she can’t imagine life without it.

Kennedy-Harris, a native of Northcentral Wisconsin, left the area to attend college and was fortunate to find an internship with the Wellness Center at Gress Chiropractic in Merrill. When her employer had an associate chiropractic position open in the practice, Kennedy-Harris jumped at the chance to establish her practice there.

Today, Kennedy-Harris spends her work days in Merrill, commuting about a half hour from the Antigo home she shares with her husband, Jason Harris.

People who make a difference Help kids ‘a good fit’ for her 

Carri Kennedy-Harris, chiropractor, Wellness Center at Gress Chiropractic, Merrill

The chiropractic office thought it would be a good idea for Kennedy-Harris to become a more familiar face in the community by becoming a Merrill Area Chamber of Commerce ambassador, which Kennedy-Harris did.

“That was my first step into the community to meet people, and I’ve made some wonderful friends including my best friend, as a result,” said Kennedy-Harris. Chamber ambassadorship involves being that link between business members and the Chamber, and she enjoys attending ribbon cuttings around her practice hours as well as other Chamber events including the Business After Hours.

While serving as an ambassador, a friend suggested joining the Merrill Noon Optimist Club.

The Optimists’ focus on benefiting children really resonated with Kennedy-Harris.

“I love kids and the group is a good fit for me because it’s all about kids,” she said. “This county is a generally low socioeconomic area and we have a lot of kids in need because of that.”

She even describes the Optimists as “her people,” a close-knit group of like-minded individuals — many of whom are business owners or business-oriented — who have a synergy when working together

For the past two years, Kennedy-Harris has served as the organization’s president, helping to drive forward the effort to create a playground at Normal Park in Merrill that welcomes children and families of all abilities. The handicap-accessible playground at the park represents the culmination of several years’ work to raise funds and then design a playground that welcomes everyone including the physically and mentally disadvantaged.

She was among the Optimists out in the community fundraising and working events that add to the Optimists’ coffers — including their wellknown cheese-curd sales at the Lincoln County Fair, Labor Day and Crazy Days. A chance conversation with a friend led Kennedy-Harris to a partnership with Magic Paper Boxes, an easy, cost-free method of collecting non-confidential paper including office and school paper, newspapers, phone books, magazines, catalogs in boxes in the community. They collect and recycle the paper and a portion of the proceeds benefit the Optimists for promoting the use of the boxes.

That effort really got us moving for the playground because it’s a passive means of income,” she said. “It’s a piece of making the playground a reality because people saw we were serious about making it happen. A foundation then stepped up and said they wanted to help us do this.”

This built on some of the funds the Optimists’ cheese-curd sales have helped to make happen. These are sold at the Lincoln County Fair, Labor Day Celebration and Crazy Days. Funds also have benefited causes ranging from post-prom, to the Easter Egg Hunt, DARE, a lot of park and recreation programming and many other activities. She’s also proud of the work the Optimists have done with the Empty Bowls program, from which funding allows for the purchase of items for the Fill A Backpack program to provide food to students who may otherwise go hungry over the weekend.

The playground became three-dimensional during the last weekend in July when volunteers — including Kennedy-Harris — constructed the wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round and other equipment in anticipation of the cement installation and finally, the rubber matting.

being doers in the community,” she said. “I’m really proud of this playground because parks are for everybody. I know it will impact people for generations to come.”

In addition to the Optimists’ focus on children, they have a focus on the law that resonates with Harris-Kennedy. She served as an emergency medical technician before she attended chiropractic school, and the experience exposed her to just how much fire, police, protective services and others in parallel industries do. “They’re close to my heart because they put their lives on the line every day to help people. So, if I can do something good for them, I will.”

That has taken the form of the Law Fair the Optimists help to make happen every three years at the local middle school. It brings together representatives of everything from police, fire, probation, coroner, DNR, law enforcement and more, and gives students an opportunity to learn about these entities and the careers within them. Kennedy-Harris’ first opportunity to work on the event was last year, and it made a lasting impression.

“Seeing the excitement on the kids’ faces was so awesome, and so was the number of people who participated,” she said. “I never, ever, ever thought it would be as big as it was in terms of participating organizations and groups.”

Speaking of organizations and groups, an idea stirring in her mind prompted her to approach another organization, the Merrill Rotary Club. When she and a few Optimists thought the community needed a young professional-oriented group, they started by inquiring with the Chamber and then the Optimists. While those entities weren’t the right fit, the Rotary Club was receptive to the idea — leading Kennedy-Harris to become part of that organization and soon, its secretary.

“It was the result of my inability to say no,” jokes Kennedy-Harris.

The idea is a little slow in forming, she said, because many of the people in support of it are also very busy with other causes and community activities. Her own calendar is quite full as both the Rotary and Optimist Clubs have lunch meetings and her involvement in Rotary includes planning, executing and working events including the annual pancake breakfast for the Relay for Life fundraiser for the American Cancer Society in early August.

“We try to get as many donations for that as we can to help curtail the cost, whether it’s the sausages or butter or maple syrup,” she said. “It’s a great annual tradition.”

great annual tradition.” Between the planning, doing and idea-generating, Kennedy-Harris has struck upon a great mix of volunteer activities. She actually credits her half-hour drive home from work on State Highway 64 with giving her a daily opportunity to ponder things. “I’m definitely a thinker, so my ride home is never boring,” she said. “I tend to pass the time thinking and I’ll broach the clubs with ideas. Whether they like it or don’t like it, I won’t be offended as long as it sparks other conversation and ideas. I think that’s a lot of what these groups look for from me.”