Judy Christie Special to The Times
Published 9:00 AM EDT Sep 15, 2019
Donna Otwell was taught as a child that no job was beneath her. “My mother taught me to be self-sufficient but to always help when there is a need,” she says.
And work—and help— she has through the years.
Otwell has co-owned a waste disposal business with her husband, ministered to homeless people on the streets of Shreveport and now works as the director of women and children’s programs at the Shreveport-Bossier Rescue Mission, where she is expanding services.
In her role at the mission, she believes that one life changed has a ripple effect felt throughout Shreveport-Bossier, a change that affects every citizen.
She is quick to say that becoming a Christian in 2006 has fueled the changes she has made in her life and the work she does. “God has taken a woman who was angry at the world and softened her heart to see people the way that he sees them,” she says. “I see what God has done in my life and I can’t help but want to share that with everyone I meet….I am a survivor of domestic violence. I have lived with hurt and pain that no one should have to live in. I knew that in order to really change the lives of hurting women in our community, I could not do it part time.”
As a nominator said: “She continues to employ the same skills that she used in the business world with the objective of providing the women she serves with the skills they need to become independent and self-sufficient. It is her mission to provide these women with the tools they need to succeed through a savings program, parenting classes, financial literacy, relationship strengthening, conflict resolution and more.”
For her commitment to improving the lives of women and children in Shreveport-Bossier and to end homelessness, Donna Otwell has been chosen one of six finalists for the 2019 Virginia Shehee Most Influential Woman Award.
A business background: She and her husband, Larry, sold their waste disposal business to go into ministry, and he now serves as executive director of the mission, where they each volunteered at first.
“We were always looking for places to serve,” she says. The change from working in a for-profit business to a non-profit has been both similar and different. “I have used many of my skills from the business world in the operation of our Life Recovery Program,” she says, skills that have helped her teach women how to find jobs and to save money.
However, unlike in her role as a business owner, she now finds herself on call 24/7.
“Whether it’s a mom and kids looking for shelter or a woman fleeing from domestic violence, my work does not clock out at 5 o’clock. Another difference is that my work calls for me to open my heart and be vulnerable … In my prior business, I could just connect to people on a business level. At the mission, I must connect with each guest on a personal level.”
How she approaches ministry: “There is no doubt that our work is challenging. No one comes to the Shreveport-Bossier Rescue Mission by accident. For most of our women, they have experienced a significant trauma that they have never dealt with. Our Life Recovery Program allows them to heal from that trauma and gives them the coping skills they need to for their future.”
She uses her personal history, including her varied educational background, to encourage other women. “Most of my career has been in fields that are typically male dominated,” she says. Something most people don’t know about her? “I learned many skills that are not traditionally taught to women. I can operate and drive a bulldozer and a track hoe.”
She has a high school equivalency diploma, a certification in cosmetology and is Hazardous Waste Emergency Response certified. She is currently pursuing certification in Genesis Process and ARMS (Abuse Recovery Ministry and Services).
“I have gained a lot of knowledge and experience over my years in the business and ministry world, but the truth is knowledge alone does not change the lives of women…Lives are changed when there is a relationship built on trust, love and vulnerability… I often share my personal testimony with the women at the mission. They need to know that the truth that we are speaking is not just fluff…it’s real, it’s powerful and it has the ability to radically change your life.”
Her vision for northwest Louisiana: “Not only was I raised here but I also raised my children here. I have a deep love for our community. Shreveport is listed as one of the most Bible-minded cities in the United States; however, our crime stats do not reflect those values. There is a disconnect, and we as a community are the key to changing that. My hope is that every person in our cities that is hurting and broken can find healing and value in the love of Jesus Christ.”
Tips to serve the community: “You don’t have to look too far to see that there are many needs in our community. Find your passion, get connected with an organization that is working towards that goal, and work with them to make the biggest impact you can.”
Avoiding handouts: “Our goal is to eliminate homelessness by giving those individuals the tools they need to be independent and self-sufficient. A kindhearted individual who gives to someone on the street may inadvertently be enabling that person to continue a path of chronic homelessness.”
Virginia Shehee’s legacy: Although Otwell did not personally know Shehee, she is grateful for her influence. “One of the things that I most admire about Virginia is that she was a person that did not wait on the sidelines for change to happen. If she saw a need in the community or wanted to see change happen, she was the first in line to make it happen. She was a savvy businesswoman who had a servant’s heart for our community. She made it her life’s mission to help others, and I am honored to be tied to her incredible legacy.”
Lagniappe: “The most important things in my life are my relationships…I am the mother of three, stepmom to two, and Nona to nine wonderful grandchildren. When I am not at work, my husband and I love to spoil our two Boston Terriers, travel and spend time together at our favorite local spots.”
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