Many of you know the name Donnita Travis, the Executive Director of By The Hand Club for Kids. If you've been attending The Moody Church for any amount of time, you've probably seen her at a Sunday service or read about By The Hand in the bulletin. By The Hand is an organization that Donnita founded 10 years ago and continues to lead today -- it's an incredible organization doing incredible things. Check out www.bythehand.org to learn more.
I have heard Donnita speak on a number of occasions, but this past Saturday night at The Venue, I heard her share her whole story of how By The Hand came into existence. I was blown away. Donnita had what I call a "Moses Moment" because things changed for her in a moment when she met with God. And the impact of that moment is still literally impacting thousands of children, volunteers, donors, parents and more in Chicago and beyond. Like Moses, she didn't see this coming. Like Moses, she doubted that she heard God clearly. And like Moses, God had an entirely different plan for her life then she could have come up with on her own.
Donnita and her husband, Daryl, were well on their way to a successful career in advertising. This power couple had a mission and were dead set on accomplishing it -- they wanted to be the best advertising company Chicago had ever seen! As Christians, they were prayerful about their business-making decisions and ran their company with integrity. You could definitely say that they were using their God-given gifts as business professionals and seeing great success.
In the mid-90s, Daryl was starting a new brand strategy company and they had a plan in place: Donnita was to get her MBA from Northwestern and she would become the President of their current advertising company. With this plan in place, Donnita really wanted God to bless it so she told Daryl she was going to slip away for a few days, head up north to get away from the city, and spend some time with God on a spiritual retreat. Donnita described this as a time where she wanted to lay out all of her plans before the Lord and ask his blessing on what they had come up with. She had been walking with Him long enough to know that without God's blessing, nothing will flourish. Insert curve ball: Donnita didn't leave the spiritual retreat with God's blessing over her new plan. She left the spiritual retreat with a mission statement and vision for By The Hand.
How did this happen!? On the retreat, Donnita was spending time in God's Word and kept finding herself thinking of John 10:10, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." As she mediated on this verse, her mind kept wandering to those who do not have life to its fullness. Or those who may not even consider their life being of any value. These thoughts started to take form, and by the leading of the Holy Spirit, she began to think of the at-risk, under-served, under-educated children in Chicago. She left two days later with this vision: Donnita wanted to find a way to serve the children in the worst Chicago neighborhoods, with the poorest kids, who had the worst grades, and meet with them at the most dangerous time of the day (after-school hours).
This is where the journey began -- although both Donnita and Daryl admit that when they look back at their lives, they believe God was preparing them for this journey from day one. It took a lot of time and Donnita has faced a lot of challenges along the way, but God has used her to move mountains! Here are a few confirmations that God has blessed By The Hand (BTH) over the past ten years:
- BTH started with 16 students in 2001 from Cabrini Green. Today, they are serving 767 students in four Chicago neighborhoods. Eighteen of their kids have gone to college.
- They've had 15,000 volunteers help them run their programs. This equates to over 500,000 volunteer hours.
- They've raised $17M from 2,400 donors.
- They've served a total of 1,844 students, made 20,000 home or school visits, and served 330,000 hot meals.
- In terms of academic success, BTH has seen 115% increase in reading, 159% increase in math, 57% of their students have gone from failing to passing, 89% graduate from high school, and 96% have gone off to college.
If your eyes are blurry from those stats, let me sum it up for you: BTH has been used mightily by God to make a holistic difference in the lives of their students. They aren't just helping them with their education, they are renewing their mind, body and soul.
The lessons I learned from Donnita and her story are countless, but I'll try to capture those with the greatest impact on me:
- Donnita met with God. Although she had ulterior motives, she knew her theology well enough that spending time with God is a key ingrediant to living an abundant life. She made it a priority to disconnect from the world and be alone with Him. Aren't we glad she did!?
- She listened. Can you imagine the tragedy of her spiritual retreat if she hadn't been willing to hear a different plan for her life? Why is it that when we hear stories like this, the person always expresses that it was unexpected? We do not have the capacity to think like God does so we can never dream up His plans for us. They are always better, bigger, and for His glory.
- She moved. Once the vision was planted in her heart, she hasn't looked back. Has she hesitated a bit at times? Absolutely. But Donnita admits that she consistently prays for the faith to keep going. She shared that the more successful BTH becomes, the harder the enemy fights against them. A woman in battle doesn't sit still!
- She was strategic. The success of BTH didn't happen overnight. It took 3 1/2 years of a volunteer staff before she launched the ministry full-time. With each crossroad she faced, she sought the wisdom of her husband and the church. Donnita is a net-worker by nature, so she knows the value of making wise partnerships (or the pain of faulty partnerships) so she strategically places herself with people who are like-minded, passionate about serving children, and desire nothing more than bringing glory to God.