Servant leader Deonte Tanner shares the power of hope when it is needed most.
By Paula Wheeler
For Deonte Tanner, Comm ’17, coming to Marquette was “a culture shock” and “the hardest but best challenge I’d ever encountered in my life.”
It was hope, says Tanner — who grew up in the under-resourced South Side Chicago neighborhood of Englewood — that helped him persevere. Despite homesickness and early academic setbacks, Tanner stuck it out, thinking of the children back home who looked to him as an example of high achievement.
As he doubled down on studying and made friends, Tanner “fell in love” with university life and with what he was learning as a public relations major. He also found himself heralding Marquette’s call to Be The Difference, getting involved in university-sponsored community service projects and even contributing to strategic discussions around improving campus safety.
Back in Chicago for Thanksgiving break his junior year, Tanner wondered how he could be the difference for his own community. Growing up, finding toys and gifts under his family’s Christmas tree hadn’t always been a given, and he’d seen how families stepped up for one another if anyone was coming up short. He told his friends to be ready when he returned at Christmas: They were going to find a way to help a local family — or, perhaps, three families.
On the ride back to Marquette, Tanner ruminated. How would he pick just three families from among an entire neighborhood that needs help? “I knew I had to do more,” he says. He decided to do a larger fundraiser and giveaway.
A PR-minded Marquette friend encouraged him to name his initiative. As they brainstormed, Tanner articulated his goals. “I’m trying to provide hope,” he told his friend. “I want to bring light where there is darkness.” The name came to him: Servants for Hope.
“Hope is what allowed me to imagine a different life for myself,” Tanner says. “Hope keeps you going, even when you struggle. Once I realized the power and the significance of hope in my life, it was a no-brainer to share that with others.”
That first Christmas fundraiser raised $1,000 for gifts. The next year saw Servants for Hope pull off a Thanksgiving fundraiser and giveaway of 450 turkeys, followed by another Christmas gift fundraiser.
After graduation, Tanner moved back to Chicago, where he is earning his doctorate in education from DePaul University. Servants for Hope continues to gain momentum and visibility: In 2021, it gave away 1,000 Thanksgiving meals from the grounds of Tanner’s church in Englewood and $30,000 worth of Christmas gifts distributed from his mother’s home.
“We all share a collective responsibility to help each other, to serve each other. Ultimately, we all share the responsibility to provide hope to each other,” Tanner says. “That’s how we create systemic change, and that’s when we are at our best in this thing we call humanity.”