COLUMBUS, Ohio – Danella Hicks spends each workday making the day work.
She fills out grant applications at the metal desk in her office and leads employee training for her paid, 11-person staff. In between networking with potential mentors for the students in her youth mentorship program All THAT (All Teens Hopeful About Tomorrow), she patrols the East Livingston Avenue building to talk with the teens in each color-coded activity room.
Sometimes, she sheds her executive director hat to become a backup custodian, lunch hand or bus driver. Other times, she heads to her favorite store, Home Depot, to buy parts for mentees’ building projects, or grabs the wiper fluid from her office floor to refill the “All THAT”-branded buses in the parking lot.
And when the workday ends, she returns to her Blacklick, Ohio, home to complete any outstanding administrative tasks.
“I’m living the dream, and I guess that’s the thing that’s so humbling,” Hicks said.
Since 2009, Hicks has dedicated her life to removing barriers to success for kids in under-resourced communities. Driven by her faith and love of people, she and her team have led afterschool homework-help programs, created career development tracks to teach students about jobs, facilitated financial literacy sessions, organized college and workplace tours to better prepare mentees for adulthood, and more.
Reopening the All THAT Center of Excellence in Columbus
When the pandemic closed businesses in March last year, Hicks was undeterred. She reopened the newly purchased All THAT Center of Excellence in June 2020 and served nearly 150 students throughout the pandemic, she said, welcoming 20 to 30 into the building each day, Monday through Friday.
Ami Peacock, Director of MENTOR Central Ohio, the mentorship-program incubator that supports All THAT, said Hicks’ dedication to empowering Columbus’ youth drove her to nominate the 57-year-old as an Everyday Hero. “She really respects and honors youth where they’re at, and I think that our country and our community here, locally, needs programs like this more now than ever,” she said.
Zaniya Campbell, a former All THAT mentee and volunteer, would agree. When she felt like she didn’t belong in the program because of tension with other students, she says receiving Hicks’ check-in messages on days she didn’t attend made her feel more welcome.
“She cares about people a lot,” Campbell said. “She cares about the students, her staff, volunteers. She just makes sure everybody is OK.”
Although Hicks appreciates the recognition, that’s not what drives her. For her, seeing the light in a child’s eyes when they’ve changed their outlook on life “makes it all worthwhile.”
“It’s always hard to pat yourself on the back when your hands are busy doing the work,” she said.
Danella Hicks’ story began in Chicago
While growing up in the 1970s on the West Side of Chicago and later in Gary, Indiana, Hicks developed a love for fixing things. She changed tires, cut grass and landscaped, and fixed household items, completing those projects alongside her late father, who taught her everything she knew. She took refuge from her strained home life in two high school teachers, who became lifelong mentors to her. They made her feel loved when she felt she was unlovable, she said.
“I want to give that back to another high school kid,” she said. “Sometimes we have kids who have such low self-esteem or who feel that they’re invisible, or they’ve been abused or whatever. I want to make sure that we give them that nurturing, that encouragement, a safe space to go.”
This summer, she’s passing on the hope she received from her mentors through the love of gardening she cultivated with her father. Through planting the rows of flowers stored in the room next to her office, she hopes that her teens will see the possibilities in themselves that she sees.
“What gardening helps me do is to see the process: plant a seed, nurture it, watch it grow and produce more seeds,” Hicks said.
“So when I think about the lives we’re impacting, if we can help a kid and protect them and nurture them until they see their value, they will reproduce, and our community will change. I believe it’ll flourish.”