“I became sensitive to prejudice when I was a kid and saw a PSA on television,” Harvey Weiss says. "It was about Benny Goodman and his quintet. Benny was Jewish and it had Lionel Hampton who was black, Gene Cooper was Italian and some others. It was about our differences and the message was, ‘See how well we harmonize together?’ and that stuck with me for the next 60 years. That’s the way the world should be.”
Born in River Edge, N.J., Harvey was just a normal kid who loved to play dodge ball, football and softball in the streets. He even recalls hitting a ball and breaking a neighbor’s window just as many young boys have done. Growing up Jewish, Harvey was aware of how people made him feel different. He also knew that he learned differently; finding out later that he had been struggling with Dyslexia.
With the challenges he faced, it became important to Harvey to be someone who stood in for others. Being an advocate for children and parents of children who have dealt with inhalant abuse, Harvey resolves to educate and inform.
Kids will be kids but, unlike breaking a window with a ball, when uninformed kids do something harmful as coaxed by their peers Harvey wants to prevent the tragedies which occur with inhalant abuse by bringing awareness.
Harvey has always had a heart for the misunderstood. “I could not understand segregation and why people hated. I grew up when people did not like Jews. I was rejected as a Cub Scout with the leader saying to my parents, ‘You are different’ and that wasn’t okay - but it was accepted. It took a lot for me to understand,” Harvey says.
Taking day trips with his parents, Harvey remembers seeing bigoted signs posted at Jersey Shore and Cape Cod ousting Jews and people of other races.
“It made me very aware and I stop myself when I feel prejudiced about something or when people behave prejudiced towards me - it bothers me. I saw a lot of that growing up in my school and how I was treated in classrooms. And being dyslexic gave me a greater sensitivity of being handicapped. With people telling me I was different or that something was wrong with me, it becomes difficult to appreciate who you are. People you would respect as your educator and for them to say something hurtful or cruel, zaps your confidence,” Harvey expresses.
Founding board member of the Senior Arts Council, Harvey also brings opportunities to many seniors who never had the chance to experience the arts.
“There was a mixture of people in the classes, retired people, people in housing authorities, and we went around to the Chattanooga Theater Center and a number of different venues in town. We went to the Tivoli Theater and then we went to the Hunter Museum. We had a fascinating young man who was our tour guide named Hassan. And some of the comments that came from the people in the group were ‘I’m scared’ or ‘I didn’t think we were allowed here.’ There was a barrier that people had placed in front of so many artistic venues and that really haunted me,” Harvey says.
“While on the tour, everybody gave their interpretations of the works of art which stemmed from their history – and I was surprised. I realized how narrow-minded I was, not really appreciating other people’s perspectives as my ego told me that I did,” Harvey admits.
When Harvey was young, his mother took him to the theater and to art galleries. There were also mandatory classes for art and music. Harvey also remembers taking class trips to Carnegie Hall.
“I was given the privilege of being exposed to it where kids today don’t get that. I was given a gift. I think everybody should have that opportunity,” he insists.
Moving to Washington, D.C. to attend college, Harvey began working in government with the National Security Agency as an analyst.
He later moved to Austin, Tex., where he led the Texas State Alliance for the Partnership for a Drug Free America and started the now well-known project National Inhalants Prevention Coalition.
He was a prevention manager for statewide programs in Kentucky and Tennessee and has received many awards with his efforts.
Having appeared on the Howdy Doody Show as a child was not the last time Harvey would be on television. He went forward in his crusade to educate the media and inform parents about inhalant abuse to speak on shows such as Good Morning America, the View, ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN evening news broadcasts, as well as being interviewed for the New York Times among others.
Harvey had lived for a time in Atlanta and, having lived in Chattanooga some in the eighties, he came back in 2005 to roost in the town that won his heart.
“Chattanooga is so beautiful and peaceful and the people are so nice. The amenities here are very similar to that of Austin but smaller. This town, I think, has an art gallery that is one of the best art galleries in the United States. I think the restaurants are really good here. The people are nice and it is just pretty with the mountains and everything,” Harvey explains.
“It really is a very seductive place. If you look around, with the arts, music and such - there are so many things to satisfy people and to be appreciated.”
Harvey likes to take morning walks and has a photography hobby, taking photos of everything that he relates to, using just his iPhone. He posts the pictures on Facebook to share with others what he sees. It is his way of connecting with those who sees what he sees.
“It is very spiritual and rewarding. Watching a sunrise – what a gift! Watching the barges on the water, the leaves are turning and you just snap a picture. Instead of being a religious person I am more spiritual. There is something greater out there – and there is a reason, a purpose for our lives,” Harvey says.
When society finally realized inhalant abuse was a widespread problem and that people were dying in their community, they began to get on board instead of ignoring the issue. Harvey would get a call from national newspapers and TV producers.
He would bring a parent who had lost a child and a medical professional to educate and inform communities and bring awareness. “Parents who had lost children would say, ‘I never thought my child would do something like that’. Some parents wanted to become advocates and some just wanted reassurance that something was being done. We have a hot line if parents want to connect with other parents who had lost children and provide a support group. I would give them materials they need and introduce them to people,” Harvey says.
Studies showed that inhalant abuse was prevalent in middle- or upper-class families. “People would realize, ‘Hey, that person is just like me – that could be me,’” Harvey states.
Being on various boards and being involved with the seniors, Harvey is not only bringing awareness with the NIPC but wants to bring all people together - not to leave behind their differences, but to embrace them.
“The world may be very myopic because of their upbringing or they didn’t have the mobility or the money to experience the pleasures that other people do and once they are exposed to it they appreciate it and like it,” he says.
“When we bring music to someplace, it is like therapy. People who you think look comatose start tapping their toes.”
Harvey adds humbly, “It’s a quiet feeling where you know you have done some good. You know that you have changed peoples' lives for the better.”
Harvey has collected pieces of art and what he calls ‘stuff’ from homeless people and finds that many homeless people have great talents. “Their world just opens up,” he beams.
“I am looking to educate people and connect people who have dealt with tragedies. I want people to know that I care. I think this is what I should be doing. I feel that it is my calling,” he says.
When stepping in for others - whether it is to bring the arts alive to someone who hasn’t had the opportunity or holding the hand of a parent who lost a child to inhalant abuse - Harvey takes on the pain he sees in others.
“I internalize it but my walking and photography helps with that,” he says. “Just to know that you made a difference in someone’s life and today is another day,” he smiles, “ …and it sure is pretty out.”
Benny Goodman commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtvFxxCpN3U
If you or someone you know needs support regarding inhalant abuse call the hot Line number at
NIPC 1-800-269-4237 or visit the website: http://www.inhalants.org/