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Donnie Dee: “Think Long Term and enjoy the journey”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?” It has influenced me as a person and also as a leader. When we look around us and see there is an enormous need in the world, do we look the other way? Or do we […]

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?” It has influenced me as a person and also as a leader. When we look around us and see there is an enormous need in the world, do we look the other way? Or do we find a way to do our part? It’s one of my biggest convictions that if everyone did something to help somebody every day, many of life’s most looming issues would dissolve. Helping people has to be a priority to see change and transformation, and that goes far beyond the issue of homelessness.


Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Donnie Dee. He became the President and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission in 2017 to be a part of the solution one of our country’s number one issue: homelessness. Donnie comes from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) where he served 27 years, most currently as the Director of the Tom Landry Associates in the Western Region. Prior to this, Donnie served as FCA’s Regional Director for Southern California, Colorado State Director and the COO of FCA from 2009–2014.

As a Kansas City native, Donnie played football and basketball for Oak Park High School and was a four-year letterman in football at the University of Tulsa, graduating from there in 1988 with a business management degree. He was then drafted by the Indianapolis Colts and played in the NFL for two years. After his time in the NFL, Dee began his FCA career in Colorado in 1990.

Donnie is a high capacity leader committed to changing the state of homelessness in San Diego. His love for Jesus Christ and for others motivates him to create a culture of excellence and honor.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Ispent the majority of my career (27 years) working for a ministry, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I raised my family in San Diego, where homelessness is our city’s number one issue. We are 4th largest in the nation for homelessness, but only the 8th largest city in America. I wanted to be a part of the solution for homelessness and impact my city. In 2017, I became the President and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission. I have learned so much about how to help people get off the streets permanently by addressing the needs, not just meeting them.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Looking back, what is most interesting to me is how my perspective has changed. I joined the SDRM team because I wanted to change the state of homelessness in San Diego. The reality is this issue has changed me. I desire with all my heart to help get as many people off the streets as possible but I am more compassionate, more relational and amazed at what those who have experienced homeless have taught me.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We have several emergency exits in our building that have an alarm that goes off unless you use your access key card. My first week on staff I think I set off the alarm 3–4 times. The lesson I learned was to slow down and pay attention. The sign clearly says the alarm will go off unless you have access. Haha.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

At the Mission, our desire is to address the needs of the heart first. We say this regularly around here, homelessness starts when people run out of not only resources but relationships. The biggest hurdle people have to overcome when they arrive at the Mission is shame. The common theme throughout our student’s and guests’ stories is unaddressed trauma, which led them to experience homelessness. If we start with addressing their trauma and shame, then they can experience transformation.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

When I think of a life transformed, I think of a graduate of our program, Crystal. When she came to our doors, she was deeply wounded by the trauma she experienced as a child from a family member she should have been able to trust. She was drug-addicted and on the cusp of losing custody of her children. Crystal tried 6 other programs but found herself back in the same cycle time and time again. But Crystal came here, which is the first victory. She was open and took every opportunity presented to her. She put in the work, and she’s been reunited with her family, maintained a job, and never experienced homelessness again. Her story was so impactful that we snatched her to work on our Development Team full time. To see her thriving after a lifetime of struggle is the motivation to continue the work we do every day.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

From my perspective, homelessness is a community issue, not a government problem to solve. When the community rallies together and sees the power in connection, that’s the beginning of change. One of the initiatives I started when I arrived at the Rescue Mission was creating “I See You” kits for the community. They are hygiene kits with our information printed on the outside of the bag, and some area services information on the inside. People in the community can keep these kits in their cars and use them as a tool to connect with our neighbors on the street who are experiencing homelessness. Start a conversation. Get to know them. Let them know that they are seen and that they matter. They may not be ready on that day to start a year-long holistic program. The point is the connection. When we start connecting with the men, women and children on the streets experiencing homelessness, it gives them a sense of dignity and purpose again. You’d be amazed at how many of our folks at the Mission decided to enter our program because someone invited them. Your voice matters, and when we come together, we can tackle this issue head-on.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

My biggest influence for my leadership comes from the life of Jesus Christ, arguably the most revolutionary leader that’s ever existed. His leadership style started with compassion which led him to service. I think we have too many leaders trying to make a name for themselves, but not enough servants down in the weeds. The Rescue Mission is built upon removing the stigma of “otherness” or “us vs. them,” which I try to create with my staff every day. It’s one mission, one message, one team. Regardless of position. Regardless of role. Together, we have a story we are a part of transforming the lives of San Diegans experiencing homelessness, one life at a time.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. The biggest obstacle for someone experiencing homelessness isn’t drugs and alcohol. It is shame.
  2. Think Long Term and enjoy the journey.
  3. Churches are one of the greatest resources in this fight against homelessness.
  4. Staff Development and Soul Care need to be an organizational priority.
  5. This work will be the most overwhelming, exhausting, complicated….rewarding, impactful, meaningful thing you will ever do.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d like to inspire a movement of people genuinely connecting with one another. I’m inclined to believe if we stop and listen to people, especially people in need or in pain, that would make the biggest impact. In our culture, I think we’ve lost the ability to listen. We wait for our chance to speak, rather than listening to others. People, whether experiencing homelessness or not, have an innate desire for real connection. That starts with listening. Taking 5–10 minutes from our busy schedules and seeing that people’s lives matter. People are more important than whatever checklist we have to accomplish for the day.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?” It has influenced me as a person and also as a leader. When we look around us and see there is an enormous need in the world, do we look the other way? Or do we find a way to do our part? It’s one of my biggest convictions that if everyone did something to help somebody every day, many of life’s most looming issues would dissolve. Helping people has to be a priority to see change and transformation, and that goes far beyond the issue of homelessness.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I believe the most influential people in America are athletes and musicians. So I would like to have breakfast with Drew Brees or Ladanian Tomlinson. Who are two of the most celebrated athletes in the history of San Diego sports? I think they both have homes here and care about our city. Having them as a spokesperson would be a tremendous asset as we work to change the state of homelessness in San Diego.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

The best way to follow us on social media is through our Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn pages:

https://www.facebook.com/SanDiegoRescueMission

Instagram: @sdrescue

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/san-diego-rescue-mission/

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