CHICAGO — She says she had every intention of running an advertising agency with her husband. But while volunteering to help kids in Cabrini Green, business executive Donnita Travis said she could no longer ignore her calling to help children. She wanted to follow her passion and make the world a better place for kids.
For nearly 20 years, Travis watched thousands of kids walk through the doors of By The Hand Club for Kids, a faith-based afterschool program geared toward at-risk youth.
A former president of an ad agency, Travis said she often volunteered through her church helping kids who lived in Cabrini Green.
She said after attending a prayer retreat in the late ’90s, she began to feel a strong calling to help children in need.
“God just stripped away my passion for advertising and just completely replace it with a passion for the kids I was serving,” Travis said.
In 2001 with 16 children, she founded By The Hand Club For Kids, using a holistic and all-encompassing approach.
“Kids have to feel safe before they can focus on learning,” Travis said. “They have to have their physiological and their emotional needs met.”
The program offers hot meals, indoor activities and provided transportations. Dental care and eye care are also provided to participants, as well as mental health counseling and college specialists.
Janae Durr is a 3rd-grade teacher with By The Hand. She came up in the program and now has a degree in social work
“I think in a lot of ways if it weren’t for By The Hand, I would not be sitting here talking to you today,” Durr said.
Today the program serves 1,600 kids, with five locations in Chicago, with an expansion planned for this year. As the executive director, Travis draws on her business experience to run the successful program, but her passion, she said, is fueled by God and, of course, the kids
“It’s easy to fall in love with the kids,” she said. “It’s easy to be passionate about what they are doing. I have so much love and respect for kids.”
Soon the Austin location will house a preschool and recreational center. This year, a sixth By The Hand Club For Kids facility is scheduled to open on the city’s West Side
“I am certain that this is my purpose in life and this is definitely a mission, not a job” she said. “My passion has never waned. I do believe that God fuels that passion and gives me everything I need to continue.”
Donnita Travis—and the By The Hand kids—are Chicago’s Very Own.