Flights of Hope

As a longtime member of The Rotary Club of Boca Raton, Kenneth Davis has reached out to underprivileged youth for more than 20 years. Over the past two years, he has actively raised more than $100,000 in donations and pledges for the students of Tomorrow’s Promise Community School, a Palm Beach County charter school for at-risk students.

November 2, 2013

Tawesa Wendy Desir’s story exemplifies the way Ken Davis’ skills and connections have intersected with his charitable activities. Davis met Desir when she was a high school senior at Tomorrow’s Promise Community School in Delray Beach, Fla.; he’s a mentor and benefactor to the charter school, which serves disadvantaged and troubled youth.

A long-time Rotarian, Davis helped Desir land a Rotary college scholarship. She in turn joined the Rotaract Club, a precursor to Rotary that Davis guides. Through club fundraisers, Desir—by then a freshman at Palm Beach State College—helped send supplies to an orphanage in the Bahamas that Davis has supported for 14 years. Says Desir, 19: “He showed me that you don’t give up.”

That could well be Davis’s life-long motto. He has been engaged in volunteer service for more than three decades. At first, he offered his expertise as an electrician to groups in need. But a phone call he received in September 1999 changed the course of his life. His cousin, a longtime missionary, had family who ran an orphanage in the Bahamas. Hurricane Floyd had just devastated the remote island, and Davis’ cousin was worried. He knew Davis could help.

A licensed pilot, Davis flew his private plane from Boca Raton, Fla., to the small island more than 300 miles away. His mission was to check on the people at the Cat Island Orphanage and deliver vital necessities. But when he arrived, he was overwhelmed not only by the devastation and general lack of infrastructure—there was no reliable power, phone, or running water—but also the fearlessness of the 20 children and their caretakers. “My heartstrings were pulled,” he says. “I decided I sure wouldn’t mind working my butt off for this.”

Since that first visit, he has returned about once a month with his plane loaded with groceries and other necessities such as appliances, fertilizer, truck parts, and plumbing and electrical supplies.

He has raised enough money to install a desalinization plant for drinking water and to plant 300 fruit trees, which now feed the children. Often he is accompanied by a load of college students who bring donations and spend time with the children. “They bring their drums and sing and play guitar for the children,” he says. “They inspire them spiritually.”

Under Davis’ guidance, members of the college Rotaract Club fixed up and donated a truck to the orphanage. “After that project, we realized how our lives, and what we choose to do with them, can have an impact on people hundreds of miles away,” says Rotaract President Nicole Richards, 21.

“He challenges [students] to think about service and not just what teens normally think of—themselves,” says Douglas Mummaw, Rotaract advisor and past president of The Rotary Club of Boca Raton.

For the charter school, Tomorrow’s Promise, Davis has used his Rotary connections to raise more than $100,000. And Principal Marjorie Waldo says the impact Davis has made on her and the students is even more remarkable than the dollars.

“Ken has completely changed the complexion of the work that I’ve been doing for decades,” Waldo says. “He is a mentor to me. He is a mentor to the kids. He talked to me about how to be more successful as a nonprofit. He changed everything.”

Perhaps most important for at-risk kids, Davis coaches and supports students who need help. Waldo says that in addition to tutoring, Davis drives students to after-school and scholarship events. He  has even made calls to landlords of his students’ families to help them get back on track with rent payments.

“He parents them a little bit,” she says. “People from poverty often have a different view of life—they try to keep their heads above water and survive. Ken is teaching [these students] how to save money and look to college as a long-term solution rather than to a first job because mom needs rent. He tries to impart his wisdom for the long term.”

Desir recently discovered that Davis is still there for her, even two years after her high school graduation. After a devastating car accident forced her to drop out of school, Davis made sure the paperwork from the hospital was sent to the college’s financial aid office, setting Desir up to reapply. “He taught me there’s always a way,” says Desir, who wants to go into nursing.

Davis says he hopes his actions will persuade others to help those in need. “Don’t miss the joy of your life, the joy of helping others like this,” he says. “When you do good for others, you forget about the problems you think you have.”

Kristin Kloberdanz, a California-based freelance writer, contributes to TIME Magazine and other publications.