From the time she was three years old through her four years in high school, Gustavus Adolphus College alumna Katie DeSantis ’10 found herself in and out of various Minneapolis homeless shelters. The difficulties and uncertainties of growing up in poverty left a lasting impact on her, which is why she is where she is today: working with children in North Minneapolis who are faced with clearing the same hurdles she did as a youth.
“Sadly, my four years at Gustavus were the four most stable years of my life,” DeSantis said. “If I hadn’t had amazing adult mentors growing up and in high school, I might not have made it to Gustavus. That is why I am doing what I’m doing today.”
After graduating from Gustavus with a double major in sociology/anthropology and gender, women, and sexuality studies, DeSantis took a job in October of 2011 as a visiting advocate for the Head Start program in Minneapolis, which is operated by the non-profit organization Parents in Community Action (PICA).
“I remember on my first day with PICA, I was getting my tour and we came to the Project Secure rooms and I said, ‘One day I would love to work in that program.’ I did not think that day would come so quickly,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis was asked to work with Project Secure the following summer, and was then asked to stay on as the program’s advocate in September 2012. The Project Secure program is an educational day program for children five and under who live in one of six homeless shelters in Minneapolis. Working for the program hits home for DeSantis.
“I was one of these kids. I have lived in three of the six shelters the program services. I was not one of the children in Project Secure because this program did not exist when I was young, but if it had, I most likely would have been part of it for a little bit,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis’ main motivation is to help those who are in the same situation she was, and to make sure that these children know they are safe and that they have people in their corner of life who are there for them.
“I truly believe that every child deserves a fair chance in life, no matter what they are born into. That is my main goal in this and in life,” DeSantis said. “I work with homeless families because anybody is really just one step away from being in poverty themselves. Whether that is a large medical bill they can’t pay, their car breaking down and they get fired because they can’t get to work, or god forbid, a death in the family. With the way that our economy is right now, anyone can end up in an impoverished situation.”
DeSantis’ job includes managing five classrooms, with the level of education increasing with age.
“We give lots of attention, love, and affection. We make sure that our kids get the medical and dental care that they need, and eye glasses if they need them,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis technically works as the health advocate and records clerk, servicing the north side of Minneapolis, but there is no such thing as a “typical day” for her, due to the large range of duties and the ever-changing environment of the Project Secure program.
“I ride the bus every morning and evening. I count how many kids we have in our program each day. I also make sure we keep track of who goes to what shelter. I register all of the children and families that are eligible at the shelters. I make sure that if the child has any asthma, allergies, or physical ailment, our teachers and kitchen staff are aware of it and can care for the child accordingly,” DeSantis said.
“I am the keeper of all the files for my program (and being that we work with the homeless population there are a lot because we have a high turn around). I do recruitment at the shelters. I work with the parents on housing, medical care, insurance, transportation, employment, and anything they are in need of. Pretty much, every day is different. I do anything and everything.”
DeSantis’ days can vary and include any number of different tasks; she credits Gustavus with preparing her for this kind of work-environment.
“Gustavus prepared me for this because it was a community where I could really learn about myself and who I am. In this job you have to be a very strong-willed and thick-skinned person, and I feel that Gustavus helped me do that because I was able to encounter many different people and situations,” DeSantis said. “I was academically prepared in that I know how to research different resources for parents, different programs, and such. I also had some amazing professors who encouraged me to be me and ask hard questions, and not take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Using the skills and values she learned at Gustavus, DeSantis dedicates herself to ensuring that children in North Minneapolis get the attention and care they need.
“Honestly, what I enjoy most about my job is to see these kids get to be kids for the day. They can come here, be safe, and feel loved,” DeSantis said. “Many of our children are English language learners and when they get here, they are shy at first, but they are finally able to blossom and feel comfortable and you get to see their personalities come out. I love that.”