Donna Alexander, Shepherd Community Center’s director of volunteers, describes her childhood growing up in a small Indiana town as a “Happy Meal life.”
Yet, it was at a young age, with supportive parents and surrounded by a community of Christians, that Alexander sensed God’s call to leave Indiana behind to serve as a missionary.
“I knew at 10 or 12 years old that God had placed a call in my heart for international missions,” Alexander said. “I would pray, ‘God grant the desire of my heart to share your love with the world,’ and I am blessed to stand here saying that He did just that!”
As a freshman at Johnson Bible College in Knoxville, Tennessee, Alexander served as an intern in Zambia. It was the beginning of what eventually would become more than a decade of life-transforming service in Africa.
After returning to the United States following the internship, Alexander married her high school sweetheart, Chris. And a year later, the still newly married couple left behind family and friends to enter the mission field fulltime in Zambia.
Alexander says God did amazing things in her and her husband’s lives, and in the lives of people they met and who became like family to them. Among those amazing things: The births of the Alexanders’ two sons and their daughter.
After 12 years, the family of five returned to the U.S, believing that their time as missionaries had ended. But God had other plans.
Less than six months after settling back in the U.S., the family accepted a call to serve in Ukraine.
“What a dramatic change of life we had,” Alexander said. “We went from the slow, relational pace of Africa, where the weather was hot and dry and the people were all inter-connected, to Ukraine’s cold, disconnected country. We had to learn Russian, experience communism, and feel the deep loneliness and pain of the people we served there. The change in cultures alone was almost traumatic to our family. I am thankful the Lord sent us there to serve for six years, but I won’t lie, it was hard.”
But their time in Ukraine also was transformational.
“It took us some time to acclimate to our new culture and way of living, but I think the hardest part was gaining the trust of the people we served,” Alexander said. “We were the only Americans in a city of 500,000 Ukrainians. We were the outsiders. Because of communism and the way of life, people were slow to accept and trust you. But when we finally earned that trust, it was deep and meaningful. Those ladies became sisters to me. If I needed anything, they were there. They would show up at my house, unannounced, just to talk and spend time with me.”
One life-changing lesson Alexander learned at that time was in how Ukrainians viewed savings accounts.
“Here in the U.S., we see savings as our ‘rainy day’ or protection in case something horrible happens, like a lost job,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “In Ukraine, you have savings so that if your neighbor, family, or someone in your community is in need, you can help them. I learned so much about sacrificial giving and trusting God with every cent He gives you. The people truly understood community and what the church is supposed to be.”
After the family returned from Ukraine to the U.S., Chris Alexander was hired as outreach pastor at The Creek, a church in Franklin. And Donna began volunteering at Shepherd.
Then, in 2017, she was hired as the ministry’s volunteer coordinator.
“I love the mission of helping people break the cycle of poverty so they can live the next year better than they did the previous year,” she said. “God has uniquely gifted me to fit in comfortably around people of different cultures, languages, economics — whether working with our neighbors or those living in Fishers. My heart’s desire is for volunteers, our neighbors, and our programs to benefit from a high-impact experience. I want us to learn about each other and better come alongside each other.”
She said her favorite part of the job is to work with high school students.
“I love taking high school volunteers on a trip to a neighborhood grocery store and having them buy food based on a food stamp budget,” she said. “They quickly realize how little they can get and how often we take for granted buying groceries. This simple lesson makes a lifelong impact on these young volunteers.”
Alexander said the importance of Shepherd’s volunteers goes well beyond the skills and life experience they share.
“I have often seen a volunteer and neighbor build a relationship, and the neighbor will say, ‘You mean they do this for free? They come here to help us just because?’ Our neighbors notice the difference between a staff member and a volunteer,” she said. “Our Shepherd staff cannot do everything; we need volunteers to come in and use their passions and skills to make a powerful difference.”
What advice does she have for someone who is thinking about serving as a volunteer at Shepherd?
“I want you to know that coming to serve or connect in any way with our neighbors is a privilege,” she said. “Interacting with those who might think, act, or be in different circumstances is a growing experience. It challenges the way we see and interact with others. Serving with our neighbors helps us not to be judgmental of each other and to have relationships with people who need a positive perspective in their lives. There are so many ways to use your unique gifts to make an impact. God has created us all so differently – our thinking, culture, and upbringing – but we are all valuable. It is so fun and challenging to learn things about the near Eastside and family situations we could never dream of and then lean on God to give hope to our neighbors. Simply sitting next to a neighbor, looking them in the eyes, and offering a smile can make a world of difference.”