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Chicagoans of the Year 2012: Donnita Travis

Founder, By the Hand Club for Kids

Good Shepherd

Founder, By the Hand Club for Kids

Donnita Travis

In 2000, Donnita Travis was a partner in a thriving Chicago advertising agency. In her spare time, she volunteered through Moody Church (which she attends) to help students from Cabrini-Green with their schoolwork. “The kids stole my heart,” she says.

Today Travis, 52, is the executive director of By the Hand Club for Kids, an 11-year-old faith-based organization that assists nearly 900 public school students from the city’s toughest neighborhoods: ­Cabrini-Green, Altgeld Gardens, Austin, and Englewood. And not just any students, but those identified by their principals as failing in reading and likely to drop out. The club’s after-school meetings, held five days a week, focus on helping them with their homework and improving their reading skills.

Those sessions have really paid off: In the 2010–11 school year, 160 of the club’s members were on the honor roll, all its high-school seniors graduated, and 91 percent of the graduates went on to college. More important, there was an 82 percent increase in the number of members who met the state’s reading standards; Chicago Public Schools tallied only a 6 percent increase.

By the Hand has an annual budget of about $5 million, but Travis takes no salary. A devout Christian, she turns to the Gospel of John for inspiration—and for the club’s defining dictum: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”

 

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Photograph: Taylor Castle

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