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Volunteer Spotlight: Dennis and Emma Sue Davenport

1. Why did you choose to volunteer at Exodus?

Dennis: Having moved to Indianapolis within the past year, Emma Sue and I were looking for opportunities to serve in the community.  We looked at a number of different programs and when we discovered Exodus, it seemed to be exactly what we were hoping to find.  It seemed to offer hands-on opportunities to feel as though we were truly engaged with individuals who simply needed someone to offer support, encouragement and affirmation in their new start in life.  We have found that it has fulfilled our hopes beyond our expectations.

Emma Sue: I wanted to use my skills of teaching in a manner that would help me expand my understanding of other people and our world. Exodus provided the perfect opportunity.

2. What has the volunteer experience been like for you?

Dennis: It has been both immensely challenging and equally rewarding.  We have come to feel as though the students we work with have truly become friends.  It’s been a joy to get to know them and feel as though they look forward to learning each time we’re together.

Emma Sue: As I think back over my volunteer experience at Exodus  I find it has caused me to become very creative and expansive in my teaching methods and styles. I have definitely stretched and stepped “outside of the box.” There are times when the teaching challenge has been very big indeed. However, there is no better feeling than to have our students break into applause at the end of one of our sessions together or to receive a “Thank You!” text from one of them.

3. What are some of your favorite moments?

Dennis:  Every week, the smiles on the faces of both the students as well as their children can brighten even the darkest days. The children are always a delight. I remember one time in particular that a young daughter of one of the students was being rather active and her mother was having difficulty focusing on the lesson. The little girl was talking and demanding attention but then she seemed to settle down and we didn’t hear a sound out of her as she sat quietly next to her mother, leaning over in her chair. After 10 minutes or so, I looked down to see what it was that had so captivated her. She had taken a red marker and painted her feet – and especially her toe nails! We all joined in praising the little one’s artistic talent while her mortified mother scrubbed away with wet paper towels!

Emma Sue:  There have been so many times when something has happened that I know I will never forget. One such event happened during the Friday morning sewing circle. A group of ladies had newly arrived in the USA.  Our communication was necessarily through smiles and hand movements. One morning I came into class full of excitement as our new grandson had just been born. I wanted to share the cause of my happiness.  I showed them a picture of my newborn grandson. No words were needed.  The women immediately understood and shared my love and hopes for this child. One of the women reached out and took my phone displaying the picture.  She slightly raised it in the air and held her hand to the sky and, moving her lips, silently asked for a blessing for my new grandson. The lady next to her reached for the phone and kissed the screen and closed her eyes doing the same.  The phone made its way around the cluster of women with each woman honoring my grandson with her blessing in her own way. The depths of this love and kindness brought tears to my eyes. I felt a true bond of friendship among women who could barely communicate with one another in words but could clearly communicate the feelings of their hearts by their actions.

4. What has this experience taught you?

Dennis: As is so often the case, I think we’ve learned as much, if not more, from the students as they have from us.  They are so dedicated and determined and come with a boundless spirit and enthusiasm. I think we’ve learned a bit of humility in recognizing that we may come from vastly different backgrounds and experiences and yet there is very quickly a feeling of camaraderie in what we’re doing. It’s not just with the other students we teach – it’s with everyone we encounter in the halls – other refugees, volunteers and staff members.

Emma Sue:  What immediately comes to my mind is how often I am the student instead of the teacher.  Dennis and I were to teach a lesson on how to stay healthy through eating and exercise. When we asked about their daily habits we learned that most of our class for that session only drank water and only when they were thirsty. They ate only as much as they needed to sustain themselves, many only two meals a day, and all but one were vegetarian. They walked an average of 5 miles a day. Our students were physically in better shape that any class I have taught in the last ten years. We quickly realized the irony of our situation.

5. What do you wish other people knew about refugees?

Dennis: I’d like people to know how strong and how dedicated they are in what they’re doing.  They have come from unspeakable hardships and challenges – experiences far more challenging than most any of us will ever face – and yet they do so with courage, commitment and genuine appreciation for every bit of assistance they’re offered. I doubt that any of us who were born and raised in this country would be able to face the challenges they face with anywhere near the strength, hope and perseverance that they exhibit in everything they do.

Emma Sue: Refugees don’t choose to leave their homes. They have been forced from them.  One student shared her story of fleeing from three homes under gunfire as rebel troops marched into one village after another looting and destroying them. She found herself in an unimaginable situation. To keep safe she had to keep moving and she didn’t know which direction to head.  She simply had nowhere to go. No one would welcome her or allow her to stop and make a new home. Refugee camps were full and told her to keep walking. Through a series of events, years later, she is now in the USA. I wonder if we will help her feel safe and make her feel welcome.