In just over three years since she became co-president of her local support staff union in Kalkaska, Jessica Davenport has worked hard to rebuild membership numbers that had dropped low enough to put her unit on the cusp of being disbanded.
She faced bigger-than-normal challenges not long after getting started when the global pandemic made it difficult to get in touch with people within the northern Michigan district. “Just trying to get everybody on board to even have a meeting was probably the hardest thing,” she said.
Davenport cold-called colleagues for one-on-one conversations, and many would not answer an unknown number. “So I’d leave a voicemail saying, ‘I’m not a telemarketer, I swear!’” she said.
She and co-president Krystal Tinker have made steady progress rebuilding membership in their local representing food service workers, paraeducators and transportation employees, especially after they succeeded last spring in getting a new three-year contract with pay increases.
“We were able to get pretty healthy raises for everybody. We also managed to get all the support personnel extra money,” to address staffing shortages and employee morale with retention bonuses, she added. “That felt really good, because if we didn’t have support staff we wouldn’t have school.”
All of that success came about because of the solid relationships the co-presidents have built with administrators in the district, said MEA UniServ Director Mary McGee-Cullen, who services the unit and helped with negotiations. “Collaboration and trust are essential for positive outcomes,” she said.
About midway through her leadership tenure so far, Davenport took on another challenge that made big demands on her time — but one with an immeasurable reward at the end. After qualifying for a Habitat for Humanity House, she spent 18 months putting in nearly 250 sweat-equity hours on the build.
“I learned to hang drywall and mud drywall. I painted trim and walls. I hung hurricane straps and worked on the flooring. Oh, and I learned to texturize a ceiling, which is something I will never ever want to do again. The site manager teased me because I had a blister after about 10 minutes.”
Davenport and her son Xavier moved in at the end of December after living for the past six years with her parents in a modest ranch house just up the street from the Habitat home.
The only downside? Missing out on daily meals by her mom, who worked as a cook in the school district for 26 years and also was available to give her tips on being a good union rep from personal experience.
“Having been a school cook for so many years, my mom makes wonderful dinners, so I’ve had to tell my son — ‘Sorry, Buddy. I know it’s not quite the same,’” she quipped. “But knowing that I’m providing a roof over my son’s head, and that it’s our house — that we own it — is amazing.”
A Title I paraeducator in a fourth- and fifth-grade building, Davenport added she loves her job of six years, which involves pulling small groups of struggling students for intensive help in math and reading.
“When you see that light go on in a kid’s eyes when they finally get something they couldn’t understand before, it’s such a good feeling,” she said.
But as a single mom — even with child support from her son’s father — she never could have afforded to buy a brand new house without the help of Habitat, which offers families a subsidized mortgage based on what they can afford to pay.
Her three bedroom, 1.5-bath house is not big or fancy, but she loves the large bedroom closet that she doesn’t have to share. “It’s absolutely beautiful, and now we don’t have to worry about the future.”