The Cape Region is full of wonderful local residents who live their lives dedicated to helping others less fortunate than themselves. Here, we highlight three beacons of hope: a teacher dedicated to bringing more equitable outcomes in classrooms across the state; a pastor who has served more than 2 million meals to vulnerable residents who would have otherwise gone hungry; and a motivational speaker who encourages others to make each moment matter as he battles serious struggles of his own.
THE BEAUTY OF TEACHING.
Jinni Forcucci’s joyous and humorous classroom style at Sussex Tech High School earned her the 2018 Delaware Teacher of the Year (TOY) award. Forcucci used that designation as a springboard to continue and expand what she refers to as her “heartwork,” which is working to change policies she feels leaves students, many of them minorities, underestimated, marginalized and excluded.
“I can’t unknow or unsee everything that I experienced as a resident and as a teacher,” says Forcucci, a lifelong Delawarean. “The changes we’re trying to make are about life and death for some kids and I’ll continue to do it in Delaware for as long as people invite me to do it.”
While at Sussex Tech, Forcucci, her students and staff at a nonprofit called TeenSharp designed a social justice storytelling curriculum that is now being taught in two upstate schools.
“Young people have a profound awareness of injustice, and are eager to make changes that my generation did not make.”
— Jinni Forcucci
“The power of that experience was the fact that it was student-driven,” Forcucci says. “Young people have a profound awareness of injustice, and are eager to make changes that my generation did not make, which is why we’re in the situation that we are in. Feeding off their energy and their desire to galvanize and make change is really what inspires me every single day. They’re ready to learn. Typically, it’s adults who get in their way.”
Forcucci was one of three 2018 teachers of the year from across the country to be selected to give a TED-Ed talk, which included a discussion of her acknowledgment of white privilege, and how she managed to clear that hurdle to forge relationships with her minority students. About 35 of her seniors made their own TED-Ed presentations over the next two years.
“The whole TED-Ed experience was a beautiful, reciprocal relationship where teachers and learners shared their power,” she says. “As a result, there was a collective commitment between us to academia, to cultural competence and to journeying toward increased awareness.”
Realizing she couldn’t lead for large-scale change from a single classroom, Forcucci went to the Delaware Department of Education (DOE) in 2020, where she worked to make sure career and technical education (CTE) pathways were student-centric and equity-centric.
After retiring from DOE, she became an educational consultant for Rodel Foundation of Delaware, where she works on similar projects. At Rodel, she’s working on a pilot project that examines middle school curricula through social-emotional learning, CTE and equity-centered lenses. The goal is for students to have academic and career plans as they head into high school that are focused on their individual gifts and assets. Another Rodel/DOE project is a partnership with Pathways to Success, a Georgetown nonprofit, to create Grow Your Own teacher pipelines in schools in Kent and Sussex counties. Forcucci credits her partners Jacques Bowe, Faye Blake and others with the fact that 25 Sussex Tech students now want to be teachers and that the program will expand to two more districts this fall.
Forcucci continues to teach as an adjunct professor with Reach University, where she currently teaches a culturally competent composition course to aspiring teachers. “I don’t feel as though I can lead for change in education if I’m not teaching or coaching other teachers in a classroom,” she says.
The classroom is also where she finds her joy. “All of the knowledge that I’ve accrued after 27-28 years is from the young people who have sparked my growth through their curiosity,” she says. “They want to grow, so I want to grow.”
SOUP FOR THE SOUL.
Almost 24 years ago, before Dale Dunning became a pastor, she began feeding the 12 ladies at the prayer group in her home. Then she would feed her fellow students who were studying at the Sussex County School of Theology.
“I asked the pastor if I could bring some soup,” Dunning explained. “I just heard the word ‘soup,’ but now I realize I didn’t hear it with my ears. I heard it with my heart.”
Dunning became ordained and bought a single crockpot to make soup for people who would arrive at the Rehoboth Presbyterian Church of Midway. “One crockpot became seven and seven became 14,” she explains.
“I just heard the word ‘soup,’ but now I realize I didn’t hear it with my ears. I heard it with my heart.”
— Dale Dunning
Over the years, she and her husband Ken have helped start 24 soup kitchens statewide. These days, she is focused on her megasite on Cool Spring off Route 9 between Lewes and Milton. Prior to the construction of this headquarters of her nondenominational Jusst Sooup Ministries, she was making 1,000 quarts of soup per week on the four-burner stove in her home kitchen.
Dunning said she saw the name for her ministry-soup kitchen appear on a white wall after her son Brooks said the operation needed a name. There were two Ss in “Just” and two Os in “Sooup,” and the vision became the official name.
The current facility, which opened in 2011, was made possible by a gift of land and an endowment by Schell Brothers, which contacted the Extreme Makeover show to build the facility. “Receiving my own soup kitchen was a beautiful miracle thanks to this kindness,” Dunning explains. “And me and my husband, we take very good care of it.”
Dunning says her passion is fueled by the love she feels for those she helps, whether they come to her kitchen or if she delivers soup to their homes.
“I fell in love — and I fell in love in a way I really can’t explain,” she says. “I thought I liked and loved people before, but there’s no comparison to when someone comes to my facility or allows me into their home to help them.”
She felt this connection with everyone she helped, no matter their race, age, appearance, income or circumstance. “I wanted to hold their hands and embrace them because they’d been discarded. No one should be thrown into a garbage pail like they’re nothing. Everyone is something.”
Dunning sometimes has to call an ambulance for those who visit and need help because of drug or alcohol issues. She often connects them with local treatment centers. “Some people who come here are on and off the wagon,” she says. “Sometimes they’re more off the wagon than on it, and that can go on for years.”
Then, Dunning says, a light comes on within them. For example, she’ll watch her counsel go in one ear and out the other of a man. The family inevitably disbands. “Then, three years later I’ll get a Christmas card saying they got back together, they’re still together and the whole family has been restored. There’s nothing more gratifying than hearing news like that and knowing you’ve been a small part of it.”
Despite the circumstances of those she helps, she’s often amazed by their talents. “Honestly, they put me to shame. They’ve suffered great losses, yet they’re so smart, have a deep faith and have a sense of hope that the rest of us often don’t have,” she explains. “One day they’ll stand tall again. And that’s where I come in.”
TRIUMPH OVER CIRCUMSTANCE.
As a personal trainer by day and a bartender by night, Ryan Ennis had an unhealthy late-night relationship with alcohol, was doing late-night eating and had anxiety and depression. Then, after becoming a born-again Christian in 2018, the following happened to him in short order:
He was diagnosed with syringomyelia, a potentially serious neurological disorder with no known effective treatment; his newborn, Cole, suffered injuries after a difficult delivery that doctors told Ennis and his wife Brittany the newborn likely wouldn’t survive; Ennis, a 32-year-old personal trainer who had never smoked a cigarette, was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.
He responded to all of these traumatic events with faith, optimism and hard work and a commitment to help others, many of whom he truly believes, might have it worse than him. The results?
“When things in my life started to change, I realized that I’ve got to be responsible for how I change in response to it, because no one was coming to save me.”
— Ryan Ennis
The syringomyelia has not reoccurred; Cole made a full recovery and is now, by all appearances, a fully healthy 2-year-old boy; Ennis found an oncologist as optimistic as he is and the three chemotherapy regimens he’s on allow him to maintain an active and healthy life.
“The principle behind my message to people is, ‘Don’t wait until your life gets worse to decide to become better,” Ennis says. “One thing I realized, and now try to communicate, is that we can’t wait to come out of a storm to figure out how we’re going to live our lives, because our lives keep going no matter what, and we never know how many chances we’ll have to change it or how long we have to live it.”
One of the vehicles Ennis uses to help others is Beyond the Bar, which he founded to help people in the hospitality industry gain access to much-needed mental health care. He and his business partner, Lo Tibbets, provide fitness, nutrition and lifestyle coaching specifically designed for people in the service industry. The group also has partnered with a local brewery that produces a low-alcohol-content IPA, and 10% of the sales go to a Delaware Restaurant Association fund that helps people in the industry struggling with illnesses, injuries or other issues.
Ennis has expanded his work beyond the hospitality field and is a motivational speaker, business consultant and life coach. “In all three of those, I operate with the same goals, which are to help, motivate, educate, unite and inspire people to invest in themselves, so that they can better the lives of everyone else,” he says. “I’ll speak before an organization, and sometimes they’ll ask me to come back to run workshops. From there, one-to-one coaching can follow that. It’s all centered around the concept of taking what’s happened to you and using it to your advantage.”
Whether someone is facing cancer, bankruptcy, the loss of a loved one or another traumatic event, Ennis tries to teach people to connect with their troubles on an emotional level to help them become the best leader in their own lives, regardless of their circumstances.
“It wasn’t until I woke up with a stage 4 metastatic lung cancer diagnosis that I realized I’d been full of anxiety and worry and that the best days were right there in front of me the whole time,” he says. “When things in my life started to change, I realized that I’ve got to be responsible for how I change in response to it, because no one was coming to save me.”
Ennis says he believes each setback has made him more prepared to deal with the next one and has only deepened his faith and his belief in miracles. He plans on continuing his work for years to come.
“I have no intention of going anywhere or being ‘terminal,’” he says. “That’s a doctor’s word, not mine.”
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT THE DELAWARE BEACH COMMUNITY?
DALE DUNNING For me, it’s simple: It’s how wonderfully generous the people are. Obviously, the people I serve and minister to need more than soup. I was born and raised in this area and have lived here all my life. I don’t take a salary from the ministry and the people from the surrounding communities make it relatively easy for me to do that. They’re so giving, forever calling me to tell me they’re dropping off nice clothing and all kinds of toiletries and canned goods for my people. They hold coat drives for us in the fall. I can’t say enough about how kind and loving they are to me and in the way they help the people I serve.
RYAN ENNIS I started seeing how truly authentic, genuine and loving this community is. And when Cole had his issues, I saw a community that rallied together like I had never seen before. They held a fundraiser for me when I got cancer. People here will do anything to help a good cause — whether it’s helping someone pay their bills, picking up their tab, cutting their grass or fixing their gutters. It’s an area that’s rich with incredible people. If you simply start a conversation with the person next to you, chances are they’ll have an amazing story you can learn from.
JINNI FORCUCCI I grew up in Kent County and my grandparents had a beach house in Dewey Beach during much of my childhood. After I graduated from the University of Delaware with my undergraduate degree, I came back for “one more summer.” That was 35 years ago and I’m still here. Once you have the ocean in your spirit and your soul, it’s there to stay. My pull to this community is the beauty of the ocean and the solace and comfort that it brings my family. My sons are competitive skimboarders, and they choose the ocean over almost anything. Living here gives us an opportunity to connect as a family.