Daytonian of the Week: Neighborhood ‘cruise director’ lifts spirits during the coronavirus pandemic

Donna LaChance has affectionately been dubbed the “cruise director” of Dayton’s McPherson Town Historic District.

Since Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order began in March, LaChance has organized weekly “walkabouts” for neighborhood residents.

What started out as a game of “Simon Says” played in the street has expanded to twice weekly community word scrambles, games of “Name That Tune” and searches for superheroes in the neighborhood.

Our Daytonian of the Week believes "each of us has the responsibility to care for others," and tells us what inspires her about the community.

You’ve been organizing weekly “walkabouts” for McPherson Town, the neighborhood you live in. Why did you decide to do this? 

One thing my faith has taught me is that “joy” is a choice, that “contentment” is something we can learn to practice and that each of us has the responsibility to care for others. In challenging situations, it is easy to become fearful, discontent and isolated. The COVID-19 pandemic hit quickly and unsettled our everyday lives in big ways. It required us to isolate and I saw the potential for joy and contentment wane. So, I decided to put my gift of organizing to use by creating an experience that would spread a little joy in my small part of the world.

It started off with a simple game of socially distanced “Simon Says” followed by a sidewalk word scramble activity. I watched my neighbors, in all ages and stages of life, laughing and having fun as they connected over games. For a few moments, thoughts of the virus were set aside, and people were seemingly carefree. Afterwards, someone jokingly asked, “What are we doing next week?” and that’s how the “walkabouts” were born. I didn’t have an answer at the time, but I got right to work on other activities that allowed us to get out into the neighborhood and connect with each other. We now have two events a week that engage children, families and adults of all ages. I wasn’t sure how the ongoing activities would be received, but people seem to be enjoying them and we are learning a little more about one another in the process.

What have you observed about these communal events? 

One of the things I have always enjoyed about my neighborhood is that it is an eclectic mix of people. There have been a lot of people that have come and gone since we first moved here and I have appreciated getting to know those whose backgrounds, life experiences, ideas, values and opinions are different from mine. We don’t just co-exist; we engage with one another.

These communal events allow that engagement to continue, despite the need to be socially distant. People are taking advantage of the opportunity to contribute to the greater good of the neighborhood. As an example, one day we opened the McPherson Town Zoo and neighbors were asked to put out stuffed animals or photos of animals so that kids could get out for a bit of fun. Lots of residents who don’t have small children in their homes participated because they knew the value of the experience for the neighborhood kids. People seem to be having as much fun setting up for the walkabouts as they do actually walking them! Through these walkabouts I have also observed people’s creativity, sense of humor and gratitude.

What does community mean to you? Has the pandemic changed that definition? 

For me, community refers the people you “do life” with; people with whom you share a common connection and purpose. I think all of us are involved in multiple communities simultaneously. We have groups of people with whom we connect, not only where we live, but in the places where we work, volunteer, worship, play, celebrate and create. I believe we were created to be in fellowship with one another; it’s in our DNA. We need each other to face the challenges that life throws at us and to celebrate the good things we experience. The pandemic has not changed that definition for me, but it has made me even more grateful for the people that I get to “do life” with!

What do you see that is positive at this time? 

I tend to be a “glass-half-full” kind of gal, so I see a lot of good going on. I see people checking on one another, encouraging one another, reminding one another that this current situation is not permanent. I see people demonstrating their gratitude for the work being done by health care workers, first responders, store clerks, food service operators and so many more. I see messages of hope written on sidewalks, social media posts, TV ads and billboards. I see people donating their time, resources and skills to benefit those who are struggling or in need. I see creativity exploding as solutions to problems are tackled. I see a lot of “love thy neighbor” in action every day.

What is your background?

I believe everyone possesses a God-given set of skills and abilities that they are to utilize to the benefit of others. Through the decades, I have come to realize that I possess skills in leadership, organization and hospitality. I express my love for people through acts of service and am my best self when I am tending to the needs of others. I think I first consciously recognized this while serving as a resident advisor in college. Then it manifested itself in my professional career. As a speech pathologist at Good Samaritan Hospital, I cared for adults with communication disorders After a few years working solely in direct patient care, I began to assume management responsibilities. I eventually became a department director, serving a staff of about 30 employees. My last three years at GSH I worked in the Organizational Development Department where I supported other leaders in finding ways to improve the patient care experience, employee satisfaction and the processes for getting work done.

In 2001, I left GSH to give my full-time attention to our four children, all of whom were enrolled in Dayton Public Schools. For the next 15 years, I actively volunteered at Franklin Montessori School and Stivers School for the Arts. Whether serving in the Parent Resource room, managing family involvement events, spear-heading fundraising activities, or coordinating staff recognition programs, I tried to focus on creating experiences designed to engage students, families and staff and which allowed them to feel special and appreciated.

In 2007, I went on a life-changing mission trip to the country of eSwatini (also known as Swaziland). It was there that my faith was tested and where I felt called to engage in caring for orphans and widows impacted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in that country. Upon my return, I began volunteering as the mission trip coordinator for my church, Christian Life Center. To date, I have equipped 42 teams, comprising more than 275 participants to go serve in communities throughout eSwatini. Caring for vulnerable children abroad compelled me to serve in a similar capacity here at home. In 2017, I became a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) through the Montgomery County Juvenile Court. As a volunteer advocate I now speak for the best interest of abused and neglected children before the courts.

You were an early downtown Dayton “pioneer.” When did you move to McPherson Town and what drew you to it? 

My husband and I moved into McPherson Town in 1991 as newlyweds. Had you asked me prior to that point in my life if I would ever be an urban dweller, I would have most likely answered with an emphatic “no.”However, love can make you do things you never thought you would. My husband, Buddy LaChance, was living in the neighborhood when we met. He also was actively involved in Dayton’s urban restoration and redevelopment efforts. He was passionate about reinvesting in McPherson Town and becoming a part of the solution to the problem of urban blight. Buddy was adamant that we could take a beaten, boarded up and condemned house and turn it into a sound, beautiful and welcoming home. He had the vision that I did not possess, but his passion was contagious, and I so jumped on the rehabilitation train. The risk we took and the investment we made way back then turned out to be a wise decision, though it was not without its challenges. Things began to change, and the neighborhood became such a special place to us that we ended up building a new house here in 1998 to accommodate our growing family. We soon will be celebrating 31 years as McPeeps!



What would be a perfect day in Dayton for you before the pandemic? What is it now? 

No matter what I do, a perfect day would include spending it with my husband and kids. I really enjoy their company. Before the pandemic, a perfect day in Dayton would start off with a stroll through the 2nd Street Market for breakfast, then a late morning walk along the river or a hike through one of the Five Rivers MetroParks. I would spend the afternoon cheering on the Flyers at UD Arena followed by dinner at a local, independent restaurant. The evening would find me at the Schuster Center enjoying a Broadway musical.

Since the pandemic, a perfect day still includes my family. It’s just that now, we make our own breakfast. I am thankful that we can still get out and walk together. UD basketball has been replaced by board games at the kitchen table and dinner out has become carryout dinner-in. And those Broadway musicals – now we are now watching some on YouTube and Disney+.

What inspires you about Dayton? 

Dayton has a history rich in creativity. Whether it is the spirit of invention seen in the early settlers of the area or the spirit of innovation we see today, Dayton is a resourceful community that transforms ingenuity into enterprise. Personally, I am very appreciative of and inspired by Dayton’s arts culture. A vast array of opportunity is available to us. My family has thoroughly enjoyed performances at the Schuster Center, Victoria Theatre and the Loft. We have attended concerts at the Levitt Pavilion and productions by the Muse Machine. Our children were raised with visits to the Dayton Art Institute, including art classes. Every year we look forward to the Celtic Festival and Oktoberfest. We have purchased gifts from DVAC and supported budding artists in our community through Stivers’ annual photography exhibition and Soup Dressed Up. We like strolling through downtown and checking out the various boutiques and galleries of local artisans. We have laughed with friends at the Black Box Improv and most recently have enjoyed the variety of murals springing up around town. I appreciate the fact that the Dayton arts community inspires me to see more, do more and feel more.

What is your favorite Dayton area food? 

That’s a tough one because I have lots of favorites which include a filet at the Pine Club, a Sophie Mae pizza from Old Scratch, the Bourbon Street Salad at Coco’s Bistro, and the Pad Thai at Thai 9. Of course, no summer is complete without ice cream from Young’s Dairy. I could go on, but my waistline is expanding just thinking about all of this deliciousness!

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