Shining the Spotlight on Local Volunteers
These days, it’s easier than ever for people to stumble upon their 15 minutes of fame. A random act of kindness, caught on camera, will spread around the world in mere hours. However, for every recognized act of kindness, dozens more go completely unseen. In Chattanooga, there are volunteers everywhere who keep our community running, yet get little-to-no recognition for it. Here, we’re determined to change that by shining a well-deserved spotlight on members of our community who work tirelessly to make other people’s lives better, day in and day out.
By Anna Hill | Photography by Sarah Unger
Jann Davis, Chattanooga Area Food Bank
Jann Davis knew that when she retired from the social services field after more than 35 years, the work that she did serving others certainly wasn’t done.
“Although I retired in 2012, I still needed to be an important part of people’s lives – maybe not to the extent of my career, but still making a difference,” she shares. After taking a while to enjoy her newfound freedom, Davis decided it was time to get involved in some way once more. “In 2014, I toured the local food bank and instantly knew it was the place for me,” Davis adds.
At the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, Davis takes on tasks anywhere that she’s needed each week. This includes sorting and boxing food, building snack packs for school-aged children in need, and distributing food to anyone who’s down on their luck or struggling with food insecurity. “The best part of my volunteer time is everything I do,” she says.
While Davis loves the work she puts in at the food bank, she also finds joy in the relationships she’s built through her years of volunteering. “All of this has gifted me with lifelong friendships and a community of people who truly care about each other,” she explains. In her time volunteering, Davis says it’s the little things that keep her going. “Just hearing, ‘I’m so grateful for the food I’m receiving,’ or, ‘Thank you so much for what you’re doing,’ are comments that drive me back on a regular basis.”
Other than making a difference in the community, one of Davis’ goals with her work is to encourage others to do the same. “Don’t ever think that you have nothing to offer. Each of us has a skill, a talent, an energy that can truly make a difference. Challenge yourself to share that,” she advises.
Davis believes that any way someone can contribute, no matter how small, will always be worthwhile, and will always be something that’s appreciated. It goes without saying that everything she does to help those in need will always be appreciated, too.
Susan Izell, Humane Educational Society
Though Chattanooga native Susan Izell worked in health care for 37 years, as of late, she’s shifted her focus to those with four legs instead of two. After retiring in 2019, she became a full-time volunteer at Chattanooga’s Humane Educational Society, and since November of 2016, she’s provided a foster home for over 350 cats and kittens. When she first started visiting to help prepare animals for adoption, she realized that she wanted to do so much more. Now, she’s there for more than 40 hours each week, and she still doesn’t feel that she has the time to do everything she’d like to.
“I love cats and have always had cats in my home,” Izell says. For her, getting involved with the foster program at HES felt like the natural next step in her volunteer work there. When she’s on-site, she helps out with cleaning, stocking supplies, speaking with families who are looking to adopt, and working with the cats and kittens themselves. Her primary focus is supporting the foster coordinator, who’s in charge of making sure the animals are well-taken care of and providing support to those who foster animals from HES.
“This area has a huge overpopulation of cats,” Izell shares. As a dedicated volunteer, one of her goals is to educate people in the community on the need for spay/neuter laws and on how to simply be responsible pet owners.
Helping out animals in need and getting them into good homes is one of Izell’s favorite parts of her week. “Often, cats and kittens that are found or surrendered are dirty, malnourished, full of fleas, and very afraid,” she explains. “To watch their transformation into beautiful adoptable animals is always so uplifting.”
Izell is grateful that, through the support and donations of the community, HES is able to provide medical care, food, and shelter for so many animals in need. Though the environment can sometimes be stressful, she is also grateful for the work and the support of the staff at HES who give so much of themselves day in and day out – just like Izell.
For retired cabinetmaker Bill Leiper, using his time to serve others is second nature. In 2005, he closed up shop and joined the Peace Corps, where he spent three and a half years teaching locals the basics of carpentry in Cristòbal Colòn, Ecuador. When he returned to the United States, he and some friends built his current residence in Ringgold, Georgia, which he now calls home base as he volunteers throughout the greater Chattanooga and North Georgia area.
“When I was growing up, my parents were always involved in community affairs work,” Leiper remembers. “Community service was always just what one ‘did.’ One reason I joined the Peace Corps was to be able to volunteer 24/7.”
Now, Leiper is a truck driver that runs Sack Pack deliveries for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. He has also been volunteering with the American Red Cross in Georgia as a disaster responder since 2012. On top of all that, he finds time to mentor and train new volunteers there, and recently he has spent time volunteering as a poll observer for Fair Fight Action in Georgia.
Leiper says that he finds all of the work he does rewarding, in so many different ways. In working with the Red Cross, he gets to see concrete effects of the time he dedicates. “To respond to a house fire or a flood and to be able to lessen someone’s pain immediately is very fulfilling,” he shares. When he makes food bank deliveries, he’s reminded that his life has been fortunate, and that good fortune can be shared. All of his volunteer work and community involvement is, and always has been, a source of joy in his life, and he has no plans to slow down any time soon.
“Every experience brings with it new skills and a change of perspective. I hope to continue adding to my bag of tricks so that I can become an even better volunteer, for as long as I possibly can,” says Leiper.
Dionne Jenkins, United Way, Habitat for Humanity, UTC, Bessie Smith Cultural Center, The Bethlehem Center
Though Dionne Jenkins is not a Chattanooga native, she considers the Scenic City to be her home. Jenkins currently serves as the Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion for the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, but that’s certainly not where her work stops. When Jenkins first moved to Chattanooga in 2008, volunteering was how she got to know the community around her.
“United Way and Habitat for Humanity are organizations that I hold very dear to my heart,” she says. One focuses on building stable lives, while the other focuses on home ownership. Jenkins believes that these are cornerstones of a strong community, and they’re also things that she wishes for her own children.
One of Jenkins’ tasks with United Way is to help organize and wrap Christmas presents for children in low-income families. Once, when she was wrapping up a simple headband as a gift, she wondered what child would get excited over such a small thing. But when the time came for the children to pick up their presents, a little girl unwrapped the gift on the spot and yelled, “Mom, this is the exact same headband I told you I wanted!” “I cried right there,” Jenkins says. “At that moment, I realized that I take far too much for granted. What was small to me – it was big for her.” For Jenkins, moments like this go to show that philanthropy isn’t just about money. “Your time is just as valuable as your dollar,” she says.
Jenkins’ work is also about breaking down barriers. “If I can eliminate race, age, gender, and disability as barriers, and teach people to embrace the diversity that we all bring to the table, then I would count that as mission accomplished,” she explains.
She hopes that not only can she serve those in need, but also become a role model to children of color in the community. “Hopefully, they will look at me and say, ‘If she can do it, I can too!’” says Jenkins.
Giving back to those around her is a part of her life that she cherishes. “My plan is to stay involved as long as God allows,” she adds.
Jim Casey, Habitat for Humanity, Orange Grove Center, Henderson Settlement
For more than 30 years, Jim Casey worked all over the United States and Europe for his career with Kimberly-Clark and Honeywell. When it was time to retire, he moved back to Chattanooga, the city he was born and raised in until he was 12. He was happy to be back and close to family once again, but he was also looking for something meaningful to do with his retirement. Hoping to give back to the community and get involved around town, Casey volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and Orange Grove Center, as well as the Henderson Settlement, a nonprofit organization that works to meet community needs in Appalachia.
With Habitat for Humanity, Casey works to provide homes or home repairs that help others live better, safer lives, as well as meet their housing needs. “Many people are unable to handle home repairs for various reasons, and Habitat becomes the solution to those housing problems,” Casey explains. He and the teams he works with, or even occasionally leads, go out each week to tackle any number of tasks, including building homes, critical home repairs, and weatherization. “I like the hands-on involvement and being able to see projects come to a completion,” Casey says about the work he does.
It’s important to Casey that he’s able to use his time contributing to something that really makes a difference, like making sure people have the shelter they need to live well. “I want the work to have a meaningful outcome and to assist others with something they could not do for themselves,” he adds.
Casey also encourages others to get involved somewhere, if they can. “The best part is the feeling of accomplishment and being able to help others,” he says about his volunteer work. Volunteering not only keeps him active and connected to the community, but it also provides others with something – such as a home of their own – that they might not have been able to obtain otherwise.
Casey adds that there’s so many options for finding your niche when it comes to giving back, you’ll likely find yourself suited to more than one – just as he has. CS