August 26, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Shawn Davis II, 18, may have misunderstood conditions for community service at Ralston High School. The requirement is 40 hours, but with 1,027 official hours—and many unofficial hours—he’s put in more than 40 days of his life volunteering.

“I’ve grown a greater appreciation for the food I have in my house, the books that I have at school, and the knowledge that I have in my brain.” Volunteering, he says, is a worthwhile experience.

Shawn has been a volunteer at Henry Doorly Zoo since fifth grade. His mother, Julee Ostblom-Davis, had him volunteer at the zoo as a way to bring him out of his shell.

“As a child, he was attached to me,” Ostblom-Davis says. “I’d say, ‘honey, would you please go play with the other kids?’ But he was not always interested.”

He did, however, love animals, and being a volunteer at the zoo put him in a position to need to talk to people.

“I would talk to these people, and I found I liked talking to people about something I was passionate about,” Davis says.

He is still passionate about animals. Davis has risen through the ranks from the XYZ (eXplore Your Zoo) group to the Zoo Crew, on which he served as the leader on Mondays this summer. He started around 8 a.m. on Mondays, to get the 10-12 other Zoo Crew members ready for the day, then helped the 25-30 younger zoo volunteers who arrived about an hour later.

“He’s the go-to person if there’s a question, if there’s a problem,” says Troy Solberg, youth volunteer coordinator at Henry Doorly Zoo. “He figures out what to do with the youth volunteers if it’s too hot, if it’s raining. Shawn has over 800 hours over the last three years.”

It’s also a way for this gregarious teenager to make friends. One friend he has made through volunteering is always dressed in black and white and blind in one eye. She even made an appearance in his senior photos. This friend, Helga, is Shawn’s favorite penguin.

He works with Helga and the other penguins through a component of the volunteer program known as animal shadowing.

“Not all Zoo Crew kids choose to do that, and not all are selected,” Solberg says. “That component takes a certain demeanor and a certain maturity level.”

Davis also spends hours volunteering at school. The past four years, Davis volunteered to help underprivileged students through R Pantry, a food pantry at Ralston High School that is open on Fridays. He also assists with the monthly food distributions coordinated in conjunction with Food Bank for the Heartland. He volunteered through the National Honor Society, and he was not content to stock and distribute canned goods.

“Two of [National Honor Society] officers are in charge of it,” National Honor Society sponsor Daniel Boster, Ph.D., says. “Sean was one of those students this year. He was constantly attentive to it. That part I normally do as the adult, he did. He did a lot of the communicating with the Food Bank. He checked on the other students. You could always count on him.”

Although his days with that organization are over, he made sure the organization was more organized. He used money he received from the Adler Foundation to buy aprons that will now be used as a uniform for those students working at the food distribution site, making it easier for patrons to ask the right person for assistance.

“That type of foresight can be unusual for a teenager,” Boster says.

He also volunteered with Rambassadors, a group of student leaders dedicated to promoting positivity. In this role, he helped incoming freshmen transition into the school and participated in activities such as High Five for a Heart, a Valentine’s Day initiative to make new friends. In the initiative, students wear paper hearts on strings around their necks and exchange hearts with friends and strangers by giving them high-fives. Davis helped cut out paper hearts and hang them in the school.

His mother is understandably proud of him.

“I don’t know where this[love of volunteerism] came from, but he became his own person and learned how to fly when he came to Ralston High School,” says Ostblom-Davis.

In fact, the kid who was content to stay at home with his family often enlisted his family in his volunteer activities.

“The joke is we are all following in his wake,” Ostblom-Davis says. “He would ask ‘can anyone help with this? Can anyone help with that?’ and we said yes.”

While many students complete more than 40 hours of community service, someone completing 40 days’ worth of community service is extraordinary. This is why he received a scholarship from West Rotary Club on their Senior Recognition Day.

He says he enjoyed his time in high school, but now looks to the future.

“In high school, you get in and they tell you to do as much as you can, and four years fly by,” Davis says. “I did what was asked of me, and the four years went by extremely fast. So when you’re leaving this, some people think it’s taking away something from your life, but I’m glad to be moving on to the next thing.”

He now attends Creighton University, where he plans to continue his community involvement through a student volunteer program called Freshman Leadership.

“We do service every week as a collective group and live in the dorms together, which is pretty fun,” Davis says of this group. He wants to build on his lessons from high school and continue to “walk with people who are less privileged than me.”


This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Shawn Davis at Ralston High School

Shawn Davis at Ralston High School