Western Kentucky University Professor Nurtures Her Community and Fights Inequity through Service

Daily Point of Light # 7509 Mar 15, 2023

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Donielle Lovell. Read her story and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light. 

A native of western New York State, Dr. Donielle Lovell grew up on the Allegany Indian Reservation, home of the Seneca Nation of Indians. From early childhood, Donielle would accompany her father to put flags on the graves of Indigenous servicemen and participate in Indian Food Dinners at the local church. Her mother was a Girl Scout troop leader and volunteered for United Way. Dr. Lovell followed this tradition, volunteering in every community she lived in. 

“In my family and in my community volunteering is the way of life,” Donielle said. 

Donielle is a first-generation college graduate. Her undergraduate training was in social science education, but she quickly discovered that teaching high school was not for her. She discovered a new passion after being given the opportunity to apply for AmeriCorps, a federal agency that brings people together to tackle the country’s most pressing challenges through national service and volunteering. Each year, AmeriCorps enrolls over 200,000 individuals to serve with organizations across the country, providing educational support for nearly 12,000 schools across the nation, helping people get back on their feet through economic opportunity programs, helping conserve natural environments and more.

Through AmeriCorps, Donielle taught GED prep and life skills at an adult education center, as well as to male inmates in the local jail. At 22, she realized that she couldn’t begin to understand the experiences of black men who are incarcerated. She struggled with the notion that what she was teaching them ultimately didn’t matter because they were going back into a system of racism and few opportunities. This got her thinking about ways to work on these issues and how she could turn her interests into a career. These interests included a knowledge of the position that people are in, the kinds of barriers that stand in their way and what can be done. This led to a Master’s in Community Development from Delta State University in Mississippi, and a PhD in Rural Sociology from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Warm Blessings Community Kitchen served nearly 90,000 meals in 2022./Courtesy Donielle Lovell

Throughout her university years, Donielle continued volunteering in her communities. She also learned how to use research as a tool to get people the resources they need. When she got her PhD, Donielle found a position at Western Kentucky University.   

“I found myself in a community where I was doing this sort of work as a job but I didn’t want it to be just about a job,” said Donielle. 

Wanting to engage more deeply with her community, she became involved in a number of organizations. She has served as the board chair of Warm Blessings Community Kitchen since the end of 2020. She is passionate about Warm Blessings because it addresses core basic needs and structural barriers, such as poverty, that ultimately determine whether someone has access to food and housing. These barriers also impede the ability of individuals to successfully enter the workforce. 

Under Donielle’s leadership, Warm Blessings provided 28,000 meals to the community during 2021 and this number has grown to 88,000 in 2022. But in speaking with Donielle, she is almost uncomfortable with the recognition she has gotten as a result. In the Seneca tradition, it is expected to work for seven generations ahead, meaning that the focus is always on others. 

Donielle credits much of Warm Blessings’ success to a group of people who are ready to do big things. Today, Donielle’s focus is on streamlining the organization in order to boost services. Over the past several years, the organization has come to a point where it can positively impact more than just the local community.  

Part of the growth is driven by an innovative solution: “pop-ups” that deliver food to rural communities. Warm Blessings also features a food bank, senior meal delivery and serves hot meals five days a week. These meals are all prepared and served by volunteers. 

In addition to food services, Warm Blessing will soon launch a capital campaign for a new community facility which will include transitional living for the unhoused of Hardin County, Kentucky. Though Donielle has been the “lead” for this initiative, this has been a tremendous team effort from the entire community including the city of Elizabethtown. 

Dr. Donielle Lovell, board chair of Warm Blessings Community Kitchen and Western Kentucky University professor./Courtesy Donielle Lovell

Transitional living facilities like this are intended to help people regroup and get back on their feet after a personal tragedy or upheaval, and reenter the workforce with dignity. 

Growing up as a SNAP benefits and Angel Tree recipient, Donielle is deeply appreciative of the help she and her family received during trying times. Today, it’s important to her to continue the legacy of community service because she knows first hand how much of an impact it can make. 

“It’s my calling. It’s who I am. It’s what I love to do,” she said. 

In addition to her work with Warm Blessings, Donielle is a co-chair of the Removing Obstacles for Employment committee, part of the Lincoln Trail Area Development District. This committee develops interventions and solutions for those with criminal backgrounds to re-enter the workforce. This includes expungement sessions, working with local businesses to evaluate policies that may hinder employment of those with felony convictions, creating employer sponsored benefit programs to help workers get their record expunged and testifying for the Kentucky legislative committee on Race and Access to Opportunity.    

Donielle is excited to see that young people her 12-year-old daughter’s age are becoming passionately involved in volunteering. “These kids are going to change the world,” she says. 

“If feels like the idea of giving back has been lost in our hyper-focused individualized view of ourselves in society. We forget all the bonds that hold us together,” says Donielle. 

As part of the Removing Obstacles for Employment committee, Donielle regularly works with a judge in Hardin County who reminds us that “love thy neighbor” doesn’t mean the neighbor who looks like you, thinks like you or agrees with you.  

“I work on all these things that take away from time I could be devoting in other areas simply because we are meant to love on each other. If at the end of my life, If I’ve managed to do that, I’ve lived a very good life,” Donielle concludes. 

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Donielle? Find local volunteer opportunities. 

Jarmila Gorman