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Iowa City teen Kasey Dawson overcame homelessness and loss to graduate high school. A year later, she’s still fighting for a place to call her own.

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Kasey Dawson, age 19, in July 2019. — Jason Smith/Little Village

In January 2019, Little Village received an email submission from a City High senior named Kasey Dawson titled “My Life Story.”

“I never understood what it meant to be depressed,” it began.

Over a nearly 2,000-word essay, the 17-year-old reflected on her life, including the events that helped shape her depression: Her father robbing and abandoning their family in Iowa City when she was a baby. A Chicago police officer informing her, at the age of 7, that her dad had died. Her uncle, a man who gave generously to the homeless and cared for Kasey like a father, arrested and imprisoned for selling drugs. She and her mother becoming homeless, sleeping in their car or on basement floors. Finding a sense of home and normalcy living with friends while her mother stayed at Shelter House. Learning to speak up for herself, take charge of her happiness. Reconciling with her mother and renting an apartment together.

“It is now almost 2019 and all I want is to be happy,” she wrote. “I learned that everything happens for a reason. I believe my reason was so I can be strong and live up to my name Kasey, which means brave.”

“I turn 18 on March 23. I graduate from high school on May 25. My adult years are beginning, and now I’m ready to live my life the right way. The next day is never promised.”

Read: My Life Story by Kasey Dawson

Little Village videographer Jason Smith and I organized an on-camera interview with Kasey shortly after receiving her submission. We caught up with her again this summer, 17 months and a pandemic later; she was just as eager to tell her story at age 19 as 17, and just as uncertain about what the next chapter would hold.

Kasey Dawson dances with the Dream Divas in the Scanlon Gym at Mercer Park during the 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Shortly before the first interview, Jason and I watched Kasey perform during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day festival on Jan. 21 in the Mercer Park Scanlon Gym. She wore a full-length white and gold dress as did her fellow Dream Divas, a dance group formed by the nonprofit Dream Center (now known as Dream City) in Iowa City. The young women danced to a gospel ballad, emotion visible on their faces as they performed. Near the end, Kasey crumbled to the gym floor, sobbing. Other dancers knelt to wrap their arms around her, wiping her tears.

“I was feeling it,” Kasey said. “I wasn’t feeling happy at that moment. I was just like, OK, well, I’m living my life for other people, but not for myself. I wasn’t doing things that made me happy.”

Kasey started dancing when she was 4 under the direction of her aunt and personal hero Nikesha Jones, first with the Salvation Army, then Dream City — gospel, hip-hop, African, Brazilian, jazz and more. Dance became an artistic and emotional outlet as she struggled with her mental and physical health, drama at school, fights with her mother and pressure to provide for their household and not fall back into homelessness.

More often she coped with these feelings by being alone when she could — shutting herself in a closet and sitting in full silence or taking a solitary stroll.

“I like to walk mostly in the dark, which I know is very unsafe but, I don’t know, it’s just what I’ve always done,” she said. “I always put on all black before I go outside. I put my headphones in, but I have my music very low, and I just think and I talk to myself. Like, ‘I wish I wouldn’t have did this’ or ‘I’d go back and change that,’ or I think about the future.”

Kasey said her biggest regret was losing her virginity the summer before her sophomore year. She contracted a sexually transmitted infection from the experience, which affected her health and caused her to miss school and fall behind on her classes.

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“It changed everything. It changed my body functions and changed how I act. It changed how I looked. It changed how I thought about people, thought about boys and girls.”

Her biggest ally during that time, she said, was Scott Jespersen, assistant principal at City High. He supported her during the darkest days of her health crisis without judgment or pity, working with Kasey and her teachers to keep her on top of assignments. Mr. Jespersen’s office became a regular retreat for Kasey to finish homework, nap, have a chat or simply escape the bustle of the school. He would treat her to lunch if she reached her goal GPA of 3.0 or higher each trimester; Kasey recalled one particular lunch with Jespersen and a few of her friends at the former PepperJax Grill in Iowa City as “the best day ever.”

“To me that was one of the best days, too,” Jespersen said. “Kasey has overcome odds that other kids — I would find it hard to do the same. As far as her resilience and showing up here on a daily basis when some kids would say ‘Oh, the world’s against me,’ I admire that in her a great deal.”

Another resource was G! World, a mentoring program for girls of color run by Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County. Prior to COVID-19, G! World groups would meet at every junior high and high school in the Iowa City Community School District once a week after school. Students would be invited to share the highs and lows of their week, eat snacks, socialize, participate in workshops and, most importantly, express themselves.

A poem Kasey wrote in 2016.

“I always, always got excited when it was Thursday because I knew I didn’t have to go home right away,” Kasey said of G! World, which she had attended since eighth grade. The program’s coordinator at the time, Chastity Dillard, was the one who encouraged Kasey to share her writing with Little Village.

It was refreshing to be in a room with mostly Black girls like herself, Kasey said, some of whom had similar experiences to her own. She didn’t want any sympathy from her peers, but also wasn’t afraid of people knowing her story.

“I’m sure there are a lot of kids that go to my school that have had a disease, that have been homeless, that have had to have their family, like, literally ripped out of their arms,” she acknowledged. “Everybody goes through something worse than the next person does. But it was the fact that I talked about mine, because I wasn’t ashamed of it … I feel like I grew up quicker.”

Kasey would often spend the school day stressing about her home life, and spend her free time worrying about school. Her mother, who Kasey said she’d seen on her deathbed six times, suffered colon problems from diverticulosis and grappled with substance abuse, making it hard to hold down a job. When Kasey bonded with a friend’s mother while living at their house, her own mother got jealous and called her “brainwashed.” Kasey’s brother lived in town, but had his own family to care for. Kasey’s uncle, who instilled in her a love of writing, was still in prison.

“I’m in my senior year. And I’m very scared. Because now everything is going back downhill. And I haven’t been thinking about college that much. I haven’t been thinking about graduation, I haven’t been thinking about prom. I haven’t been thinking about my 18th birthday. It’s just like I’m living every day at a time. And that’s as much as I can take right now.”

Kasey received counseling from the nonprofit United Action for Youth in Iowa City, helping her stay focused on school and jobs, talk through her anxieties and work toward planning for the future. Therapy also helped her better understand and accept her mental health. She considered studying to become a therapist or social worker herself, “but books and being an author has also come to mind.”

“I’m proud of myself for actually making it to my senior year,” she said. “I didn’t think I would make it this far. But now that I did I want to continue to live and see what’s out there for me.”

Kasey Dawson at senior prom and her graduation from City High. — courtesy of Kasey Dawson

Kasey Dawson did go to prom a couple months later, clad in a purple satin dress with rhinestones on the bodice. And she graduated from high school on May 25, 2019 (two days after turning 18), crossing the stage at Carver Hawkeye Arena in a red cap and gown.

“I didn’t want to go,” Kasey said of the ceremony. “It just seemed like another day to me a little bit. Once I got there, I was happy because I knew I had made it, going through my entire high school career pretty much homeless and stressing … I did it, and I was glad to have my brother and his kids there with me, my mom there with me and my other immediate family there.”

Diploma in hand, she set about pursuing a higher education. But when Little Village caught up with Kasey again in July 2020, many of the issues that had plagued her as a high schooler followed her into adulthood.

Kasey, at 19 years old, spoke with the worldliness and weariness of someone much older. Her hair was in braids that hung past shoulder blades, blue streaks and a few metallic decorations throughout. She wore a navy sweatshirt despite the summer heat.

Little Village videographer Jason Smith takes a photo of Kasey Dawson in downtown Iowa City. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

“I want to dress up like you, try different things,” she told me. “In high school, me and my best friend, we bought matching dresses and that entire day everyone’s like, ‘you need to pull your dress down,’ ‘where’s the rest of your clothes?’ Now when I do try and open up and show more skin, I don’t want to because I don’t feel comfortable. I got that opportunity kind of taken away from me.”

Black girls’ bodies are looked at with more scrutiny than white girls, she said, and are more likely to be sexualized. In a state that’s 90 percent white, Black young adults in Iowa City form a small community that’s sometimes prone to gossip. Kasey said she’s regularly on the wrong side of the rumor mill; the name “Dawson” is associated with crime thanks to her uncle and other members of her family.

Kasey had hoped to start college classes in fall, but she and her mother became homeless again shortly after her graduation.

“I just couldn’t leave my mom like that,” she said. “Am I gonna be able to eat tonight and stuff like that, that kind of slowed me down. I stopped dancing.”

Kasey focused on working service jobs and saving money. She soon found an appealing compromise between work and education in Job Corps, a free program offered by the U.S. Department of Labor to prepare young people for the workforce. Students live on the Job Corps campus in Denison, Iowa.

“It was good. I liked Job Corps … It’s a great experience for people who don’t know what they want to do or if they don’t have anywhere to go,” she said. “The majority of the people that I met there were homeless just as I was … And a lot of them turn their lives around very quick and that was something I was trying to get into.”

“But everything just went down the drain.”

Kasey failed a mandatory drug test administered by the program just weeks into her enrollment. She claims she wasn’t provided with the opportunities to get clean via access to gyms and counseling that students were promised, but her appeal was denied. She was suspended from Job Corps, and returned to eastern Iowa in November of last year.

Her mother had secured an apartment in Coralville near Coral Ridge Mall, and was glad to have Kasey back. “Me and my mom are getting somewhere now,” she said.

Kasey comments on the colors and patterns of downtown Iowa City mural “The Return,” by Chris Vance. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Kasey has a better grasp on her emotions, she said, and is more comfortable than ever telling people how she feels. She said she’s only had one incident of anger in the last year: On Kasey’s birthday, her mom arrived late to a party at her brother’s house. Kasey followed her into the bathroom and found her mother with drugs.

“I didn’t curse at her. But I flipped my lid on her and told her to go home,” Kasey recalled. She’s become a protector to her niece and nephew, something that’s brought her joy and purpose. She’d like to channel her artistic and nurturing instincts into a career as a cosmetologist and esthetician. And she still loves writing.

“I want to see myself doing something more than what I’m doing now,” said Kasey, working at Papa John’s in downtown Iowa City at the time. “If I’m still living at home in five years, that’s OK. But I bet you we better be in a house by then … I just want to have that glory of living in a house for once.”

Kasey danced for the first time in about a year on June 20, joining Dream City for Iowa City’s Juneteenth celebrations on the Pentacrest.

“That felt great to dance again, that felt lovely.”

“With dancing, you feel the beat. When it’s loud in your ear, pumping, you get the groove and you’re having fun, you’re laughing, smiling, the bad feeling is flushed away because you got all this joy flooding inside of you,” she said. “And when I’m writing, I have the bad feeling in me and I’m trying to flesh it out by writing it down. I’ll stab the pen in the paper from writing really hard or use exclamation marks and punctuation or capitalization, just letting [my] feelings come out on paper.”

Growing up for Kasey Dawson has meant owning her feelings, being grateful for the good days and taking charge of what she wants.

“I just want my own everything,” she said. “Can’t nobody say nothing to me. Can’t nobody tell me I can’t do nothing. I just want me.”

Kasey Dawson smiles in downtown Iowa City. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Emma McClatchey is Little Village’s managing editor. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 288.


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