Dessa Scares the Hawk

December 28, 2021

Written By: Michelle Pawelski

Posted In: Elevate Magazine

During one of her darkest days, Dessa Scares the Hawk attempted to take her own life.

She saw no other way.

“I got drunk and started choking myself out. I didn’t want to be here. Because of all the stuff that was happening, I thought I had no other options. Stuff was not working out. “

Since she was three, Dessa had been in and out of foster care, group homes, and oftentimes homeless sleeping on the floor of friends’ and relatives’ homes.

“I do really feel like a burden when I am couch surfing and stuff. I don’t like doing that stuff, but it is either that or staying up all night walking around the city.”

Despite countless challenges and bad choices throughout her 19 years, Dessa is now on a path to not only make a difference in her own life but the lives of so many more.

Dessa, now a single parent of 4-month-old baby boy, Legend, has an apartment of her own, is three classes away from getting her GED, and is part of a movement to bring awareness to the problem of youth homelessness.

In November 2020, Dessa joined the local Youth Action Board, a youth-led group with a mission of creating a positive change in the ongoing program of youth homelessness in the community. Through the group’s work, including a report Dessa wrote sharing her story, the state received a nearly $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project grant will address homelessness in ways that are tailored to the needs of youth including funding for housing units, wraparound services, and housing support.

Since YAB’s founding in July 2020, the group has worked to recruit members, work collaboratively with service providers, create a mission and vision, and raise their voices in a variety of local, regional, and statewide platforms. The Rapid City YAB is currently the only one in existence in South Dakota, however, the hope is for the local group to be a model for other communities across the state. Many members, like Dessa, have experiences with homelessness.

“We wouldn’t have gotten that money without Dessa – her determination and dedication,” Kristin Kiner, youth engagement coordinator with the Rapid City Area Schools said.

Dessa is excited about what the money means to the future of the youth throughout the state. “You never know what you are going to accomplish. I feel very good that this will go on for years and years. This is what we were working toward. We are going to do big things.”

With funding secured, planning has now begun on finding solutions to a big problem affecting Rapid City’s youth. “There is a lot of thinking that needs to be done,” Dessa said. “There is a lot more attention that needs to be brought to the homeless youth in our community. We didn’t ask for this. Why do this to young people who have their whole life in front of them? What if they die because of doing what they have to do to survive – being out on their own at such a young age.”

Dessa has become a voice for those who do not have one, according to Shirley Conrad, a community resource person with Lutheran Social Services, and one of the people Dessa credits with helping her find her way. Shirley has been working with Dessa since she moved to Rapid City. “Dessa shares her heart, and she is willing to share the hard stuff,” Shirley said adding that Dessa has been asked several times to speak about her experiences.

“One of her goals was she didn’t want others to go through the same thing. She knows she has made some bad choices, and she knows what is right, but it is hard when you go through trauma and are struggling. She shares her story for others to learn from her experience, not just adults, but her peers. That is pretty amazing and a lot of bravery on her part.”

Dessa and her older sister moved from a group home in Eagle Butte to Rapid City three years ago. “I was happy I moved,” Dessa said of leaving the reservation. “I moved away from the place I grew up – all the trauma and toxicity. My parents died in that hometown, and I didn’t want to be there.”

After moving to Rapid City, Dessa gained a new freedom that she did not have at the group home. However, with that freedom came harmful behavior and toxic relationships. All choices Dessa admits were hers. She dropped out of school, started drinking and doing drugs, and was kicked out of her home. She lived with a friend for a while and eventually got a place through the Abbott House’s Independent Living Program.

Dessa veered off her path again and was asked to leave Abbott House, however, the resilient teen worked hard to get her life back on the right path. Abbott House saw Dessa’s desire to succeed and allowed her back into the program. She got her own apartment – the same one she now shares with Legend.

“Dessa is a success story,” Shirley said. “She is a leader, and I think she is beginning to see it in herself. She has so much potential and is beginning to use it in a positive way.”

Dessa’s support system now includes Shirley, Kristin and the friends she gained through her involvement with YAB. “I don’t really smile, but when I come here, I laugh all the time and always have a good time regardless. Nobody here judges. We are doing things we never thought we would do. I am here with my ears wide open for everybody. We are putting our opinions in and seeing where it takes us.”

Shirley said YAB is not solely about grants, it has become a support system for the youth. “Housing continues to be a struggle as well as transportation, that is why it is difficult for them to get a job. This is place where they can support one another.”

Dessa intends to continue her involvement with YAB and sees her future as helping others like her in some way. A future she did not imagine a few years ago. “I do want to be the person to give somebody resources. I am excited to stay with the organization. You don’t ever know, but you could reach to the top of the world one day. It just takes time and dedication.”

Despite her nearly two decades of challenges, Dessa continues to persevere.

“Everybody has got a different story. Regardless of what I went through there is someone out there that has had it 10 times harder than I had it. I just have to be grateful.”

Her focus is now on giving Legend a better life than she had. “That’s all I care about. I lost my keys to life, my parents. That is really your key to life. I just want to give him a better life. It feels really good to go home and have a safe place to sleep. I am grateful for it. I really am.”