This spring, Dakota Woodlands welcomed Jessica Sprenger as our new Program Director! Please take a moment to learn a little more about her background and hopes for the program at Dakota Woodlands!
Tell us about your experience working with people experiencing homelessness.
I started out working with families in Head Start who were struggling to make ends meet; many ended up going through the eviction process with their landlords. That’s when staff would become more involved with the families, working more as case managers rather than teachers, helping them to connect with resources in the community. That’s when I realized it takes more resources and support (wrap around services) to help families become stabilized, independent and successful in life.
After my twelve-year career in Head Start, I decided to work with the single adult male homeless population. I was intrigued not only working with a population I had not worked with before but also to be involved in an opportunity to open a brand-new state of the art facility (Higher Ground-MPLS), specifically designed to house the homeless, which seemed challenging and exciting to me. I had never been a part of an experience like that before and it was very rewarding. After working there for five years, we were seeing men who were struggling with mental health (trauma) and chemical dependency issues, have access to stable housing and the resources they needed to stabilize their home environment and their lives. It was a very humbling experience and I really enjoyed meeting and working with all the men who came to Higher Ground.
What would you want people to know about families/individuals who are experiencing homelessness?
That there are so many barriers and they are often judged for what is seen on the outside rather than the trauma they experienced throughout their whole lives. In working with children and families in poverty, you start to see the generational poverty and trauma they experience. I’ve learned that if people don’t get the resources they need (counseling, therapy, stable home life, non-abusive home) many will end up fleeing the abuse or unsafe environments and turn to the streets. Many of the men in shelter were abused and in poverty as children. If they didn’t have access to the resources in the public school system or in their family life, many of them came through Higher Ground. In my opinion, we need to spend more of our dollars on prevention and interventions services, starting at younger ages and through high school. We have to work on the stigma attached to mental health and spread the word that seeing a therapist is self-care and not the fault of the families and child/children.
What excites you about becoming the new Program Director at Dakota Woodlands?
The opportunities and potential for growth, especially in providing services to our families. Forming community partnerships is vital to offering our families services. We are all in this together and our families are going through hard, challenging times. Some of us have the families, friends and resources to tap into, others do not. It takes a village and helping others navigate through it, I have found, is my purpose in life. I have lived experience being homeless for a short time in my life. I was in an unsafe environment as a child and if I can help another child, youth, or family get through a very scary, uncertain time in their life, with the resources that I have, then I do my best to make that happen. I consider my “success” in life is when clients I’ve worked with come back to me and say, “Thank you for making a difference in my life!” There’s nothing better. To give back to others and put a smile on their face, brings me absolute joy in my life.
What are you most looking forward to?
Providing a safe and supportive space for all our families to thrive in and most importantly, for them to feel empowered to be independent and successful wherever they go.
Do you have any exciting changes or additions to the programming at Dakota Woodlands?
Yes, my first priority was to re-open the child care and we have done that successfully! The child care room is set up to foster a safe, secure, and comfortable environment for the children/youth. It is based on routine and schedules that allow them to feel in control of their environment, to know what is happening now and what is happening next, and allows for engagement in learning and knowing how to complete an activity or task. Not only do routine and schedules support stabilization for the children, it also allows for them to become more prepared in transitioning into the classroom setting.
Where can people learn more?
You can learn more about schedules and routines at the Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center, free resources and online articles are provided by Head Start. For more research on schedules and routines, you can also read the research done by Hemmeter, Ostrosky, and Fox 2006.
How can people help?
We need more support and volunteers as helpers in the classroom. Donations for child care room furniture and any information on external connections or partners that would be willing to offer their time and resources to our families in the areas of health and well-being, exercise classes, legal advice, etc. would be greatly helpful to our program!