Rising Through Resilience: Kendra Davenport of Operation Smile On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine
14 min readOct 27, 2021


Read, read and read — there is so much information available to us today in so many formats that make accessing terrific advice and counsel as easy as one or two clicks on our device or laptop. Some of the best books I have read lately that I think anyone striving to become more resilient would benefit from include: “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work” by Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan, and “Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kendra Davenport.

Kendra Davenport is the chief development officer for Operation Smile and manages global development strategy, brand, marketing and public relations. She previously served as the president of the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, the vice president of institutional advancement and external affairs at Africare. Kendra has also supported development at Project HOPE, the Population Reference Bureau, International SeaKeepers Society, First Candle and the SIDS Alliance, and Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and Communications from Chestnut Hill College and an Executive Master of Policy Leadership from Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy. Additionally, she is CFRE International certified as a fundraising executive, and volunteers her skills and expertise to assist the Leadership Roundtable.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

I entered the nonprofit arena directly after graduating from college — quite by happenstance really. I was interning for Caroline Stewart, the Business Buzz columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Through Caroline, I was introduced to Portia Sperr, founder of Please Touch Museum, one of the country’s first interactive children’s museums. Portia graciously offered me a position in development at the museum, and the rest is history. Although, at the time, I honestly did not possess a thorough understanding of what development or even philanthropy was, I discovered over time that I enjoyed working to raise operating and program funding for things I believed in and could passionately champion. As my career progressed and I learned more about nonprofit development, I was fortunate to work with people who were generous with their time and talent, who mentored me and helped me become the development professional I am today. I am now entering the 33rd year of my career and I am proud that I have spent all of it working for a several very meaningful causes in positions I loved and alongside wonderful, talented people. I have and continue to be very fulfilled by my work.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I think one of the most interesting periods in my entire career has honestly been managing through the past 18 months or so. The pandemic created a whole host of challenges that I don’t think many of us ever envisioned having to cope with in our lifetime. But despite how difficult it was initially to work entirely remotely, people truly rose to the occasion and the results they achieved have been tremendous — proving that sometimes adversity inspires ingenuity and strength.

Navigating work amid the pandemic has made us all a little more vulnerable. For example, remote work has forced us to blend our personal and professional lives in ways that were somewhat foreign and not always comfortable. Embracing that vulnerability and assuring employees that vulnerability in the workplace is not a sign of weakness but, rather, a sign of strength has been a hallmark of the past two years for me. It’s something my team and I continue to work on because of the new challenges that we have experienced. Never before in my career have I placed as much importance on the well-being of employees. The mental strain and the VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — of the pandemic has left so many people feeling bewildered, overwhelmed and scared, and many rely on work for solace, support and security in ways they never did prior to the onset of COVID-19. In many ways, I think the pandemic has helped humanize workplaces and make us all a little more accepting of the fact that, while we may hold very different jobs and places on an org chart, we’re all human.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think our volunteers set Operation Smile apart from a sea of other NGOs doing equally important work. When you stop and consider how much goes into planning and implementing a surgical program during which many children, adolescents and adults with cleft conditions are treated and receive surgery and other critical medical services, it is impressive. That all the treatment and surgeries Operation Smile provides are free for patients and families and performed by volunteers really makes the organization and its mission amazing. For me, it affirms how intrinsically good people are and the sacrifices made by our core of 6,000 volunteers from around the world motivates me to do my best every day to help facilitate their work.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are many people on whose shoulders I have stood and from whom I have learned so much. The benevolence and support of people close to me and so many with whom I have had the honor of working have helped me achieve many of my personal and professional goals. Shortly after college, I went to work for the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Alliance or SIDS Alliance. My parents lost my older brother to SIDS or as it was formerly called, “crib death,” and I felt I could passionately champion the Alliance’s mission. Shortly after I started as a field rep for the national office, the organization underwent a change in leadership and subsequently a very austere and difficult financial period. For quite a while, the organization was forced to operate on a shoestring budget and for months our expenses went unpaid, but we never missed a paycheck. Eventually, under the leadership of one of my most respected mentors Judy Jacobson, the Alliance’s financial health improved and our expenses were paid. I learned long after the fact that the reason we never missed a paycheck was because Judy worked without paying herself for at least a year. That kind of selflessness in a leader is uncommon and her willingness to do without to maintain her staff remains one of the most impressive acts of humility and true leadership I have ever encountered or known. To this day, more than 30 years later, Judy remains one of my most revered and trusted mentors.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

I define resilience as the ability to adapt as needed, overcome obstacles and persevere in the face of difficulty. I believe resilient people embody a combination of enviable traits — tenacity, intuition, drive, creativity and good humor. The most resilient people I know are realists who continuously set goals for themselves and recognize the path to achieving them may not be straightforward. They anticipate the need to adapt to overcome things out of their control but don’t allow the unexpected or hard things to deter them and most importantly, they learn from their failures and move on. John Maxwell said, “The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.” For me, that epitomizes what distinguishes truly resilient people from everyone else — their perception of failure and their response to it.

Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?

I think to achieve big things, you have to be comfortable to risk and have the courage to extend yourself. We have all encountered people who we feel could do more but are content with the status quo. Oftentimes, these individuals may be incredibly bright, well-educated and savvy. They may possess tools others don’t, and yet, they stay in the same position for years and years, content in its comfort zone. These people have always perplexed me. While there is nothing wrong with being content with your station ad infinitum, I subscribe more to the notion of maximizing every asset I have and striving to better myself as much as possible to continue growing personally and professionally.

Our societal norms inhibit many people from pursuing their dreams after a certain point in life, which I eschew. You’re never too old to learn, you’re never too old to try something new, you should never feel you can’t succeed at something because you either don’t know how or don’t know enough about it, and you should never be afraid to do something because you aren’t an expert and might look silly. That’s what I meant when I said I think resilient people have a good sense of humor and usually don’t take themselves too seriously — they don’t worry about what people will think or about the boxes society puts them in with regard to their sex or age, they just do it — that takes courage.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

I think of my husband and my father, both of whom are tremendously resilient people for a myriad of reasons. Both had long and distinguished military careers, both went on to get graduate degrees after entering the military, and both eventually left the military and went on to very successful careers in the private sector. Both men are exceptionally humble about their achievements and always have been, and both have encountered their share of adversity as well. But consistently, each rose above it. I have watched with awe at how my father and my husband comport themselves with dignity and honor but tolerance and kindness as well. They have taught me a great deal about resilience.

When I was a child, my father’s career induced multiple moves for our family, some of which were harder to make than others. In the face of me and my siblings’ complaints about our new school or our unhappiness about a move, he would tell us that we could choose to be unhappy, or we could make the most of the situation and our new surroundings — the decision was ours. That stuck with me. Years later, when I had children of my own and my husband’s job forced us to move from Florida to Virginia, my oldest child was upset, and I spoke the same words to her. The choice to make the most of things, to play the hand you’re dealt, is resilience in action.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

I can’t remember a time I was told I couldn’t do something. Most people who know me know me to be a pretty determined person. It’s an interesting question because I tend to feel we hold ourselves back much more than other people hold us back. Again, I think it’s a mindset — if you want to do something or to achieve a personal or professional goal, you have to chart your course and commit to achieving it regardless of potential obstacles. If you want it badly enough, you’ll make it happen.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

Many people have been laid off, and for virtually anyone, it is undoubtedly a setback. I was laid off from what was the third job I held after college; a nonprofit hospital system where I worked in the development department of for a few years. When it was taken over by a proprietary, for-profit company, everyone in the development department was let go. Overnight, I went from having a wonderful fundraising job I enjoyed to being unemployed. Although I had no control over the circumstances that led to my dismissal, I felt like a failure. I remember calling my dad when I got home with my sad little box of belongings from my desk, and I’ll never forget what he said to me. Upon telling him through tears that I was unemployed, he said, “Kendra, look for the silver lining. Being laid off may be a gift.” He was right, of course; the silver lining was that I was living in Laguna Hills, California, and the weather was perfect. I took a few months to look for a new job and spent a lot of time at the pool in our condo complex working on my tan. The breather the time afforded me helped me regroup completely and recharge. I went on to land my job with the SIDS Alliance, where I stayed for nearly 10 years.

How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

I think growing up as a military brat definitely helped make me more resilient, and I heed my father’s advice time and time again. By looking for the silver lining and embracing change and challenges when they arise, I have become a pretty resilient person, but it helps that I am surrounded by people who support and love me unconditionally.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are five steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

Emulate people you admire who you know to be pillars of resilience. We all have heroes, and beyond admiring them, we can internalize some of the lessons we learn from them to overcome setbacks and work toward becoming more resilient.

Be gentle with yourself. Understand it is human to err and forgive yourself for the mistakes you make, take the lessons they teach to heart and move on without recrimination or regret.

Set goals for yourself continuously and modify them or the steps you take to achieve them as needed.

Consciously work on your weaknesses. You know better than anyone what they are and only you can take the time and make the effort to improve. Don’t be afraid to ask for help — doing so is a sign of strength not weakness and a commitment to becoming more resilient.

Read, read and read — there is so much information available to us today in so many formats that make accessing terrific advice and counsel as easy as one or two clicks on our device or laptop. Some of the best books I have read lately that I think anyone striving to become more resilient would benefit from include: “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work” by Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan, and “Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

You are a person of great 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 have spent my entire 33-year career working in the nonprofit arena, advocating for and raising money and awareness for many important and meaningful causes. While nonprofits employ 10% of Americans and address a host of critical issues and needs across our country, I feel many could be more effective if they worked together and more cooperatively with our government. Although many nonprofit and for-profit coalitions exist to influence public policy and government funding, I envision the creation of collaborative alliance between several key government agencies and some of the best nonprofit organizations to address some of the most pressing issues facing our society. It would resemble USAID in how the agency convenes NGOs around the world to bring aid and development to people beyond our borders, but the alliance I would like to help establish would do so here at home.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)

There are two people I would love to meet who have lived amazing and exemplary lives of public service and whom I admire deeply. The first of them is General Barry McCaffrey, a highly decorated Army General who received three Purple Hearts for injuries he sustained while serving in the Vietnam War as well as two Silver Stars and two Distinguished Service Crosses. He also served under President Clinton at the Cabinet level as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Today at 78, he is an adjunct professor at West Point and a military analyst for NBC and MSNBC. I admire his brand of direct, outspoken honesty, and while I don’t always agree with them, I find his views on public policy, military strategy, U.S. diplomacy and politics in general fascinating. I would love to talk with him about current events, as well as historical events that have shaped U.S. foreign policy over the past three or four decades. I would also like to personally thank him for his incredible dedication and service to our nation.

The second person I would truly love to meet is John Brennan, former American intelligence officer who served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as chief of counterterrorism and assistant to the president for Homeland Security under President Obama. Mr. Brennan dedicated his entire career to national security and intelligence, and I admire his dedication and commitment very much. I also hold him in very high regard because of his adherence to his principles in the face of tremendous opposition from a sitting president. When President Trump announced that he had revoked Mr. Brennan’s security clearance because Brennan criticized Trump several times, he refused to relent or compromise his principles for the sake of maintaining his security clearance and endured tremendous public criticism and scorn for it. I find him to be an incredibly learned and thoughtful person and I would enjoy discussing many topics with him ranging from the way America is regarded around the world today to what he considers the greatest threat to our national security and to the presidency. I would also relish the opportunity to personally thank him for his service to our country, living his values and serving as an example of uncompromising dignity and sterling ethics.

Both McCaffrey and Brennan exemplify resilience. Each has overcome adversity and done so in the public eye while under great scrutiny. Either man could have walked away from public service and into lucrative private sector jobs at any point, but both chose instead to put service above the personal condemnation and ridicule they received on multiple occasions. That took great fortitude and strength of character and also characteristics of resiliency.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!



Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor