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Women of Industry: Karen DeSanto, rural champion

Karen DeSanto, left, is one of the 2018 Women of Industry award winners.

Karen DeSanto, left, is one of the 2018 Women of Industry award winners.

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Karen DeSanto loves her entertaining side hustle as a professional clown, but there has been no clowning around when it comes to improving the lives and the prospects of young people who live in rural areas.

DeSanto, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of West Central Wisconsin, is one of five local women to be honored in this year’s Women of Industry awards program. In her short career with the Boys & Girls Clubs, her approach is cited as a case study in how to run clubs in rural communities. The national organization of Boys & Girls Clubs uses her strategies and development structure to teach other clubs in the Midwest region how to be successful, youth-serving organizations.

That’s pretty heady stuff and it gives her a great deal of satisfaction. “In our industry, rural [Boys and Girls] clubs can be overlooked,” DeSanto explains. “When I say overlooked, I mean not as much attention is given because they are not in a big city area. To do the programs we’re doing, which are very much identified to what our youths request and what they desire and need, we’re able to tailor our programs to meet the needs of our rural club kids.”

To be on the forefront of an emerging part of an industry is one thing, but to be recognized by the national organization for making an impact in rural communities is a kick. The West Central Wisconsin club has presented its innovative programming before the Midwest consortium of clubs, including its healthy lifestyles initiative and arts programming. The former incorporates boxing and the latter features a high school competitive show choir that is supported by but not directly attached to local high schools. Both enable youngsters to build skills and confidence while functioning as part of a team.

“I know of other clubs in the country that have taken on that model to include that as part of their regular curriculum,” she notes.

Minding the mind

Intellectual development also rates considerable attention. Concerned with increased dropout rates in schools, the West Central Wisconsin club established a Strategic Academic Success Initiative, or SASI, that has produced a 100 percent graduation rate among club members. “It’s a combination of everything we do at the club,” DeSanto explains. “It’s not only academic; it’s also social behavior. It’s healthy thoughts, so mental wellness, as well as physical activity and a focus on good character and leadership — being a good community servant. To us, that’s the model.”

In DeSanto’s view, the club has created a way for teenagers to be socially accepted and support one another. The thinking is that the academics will come when young people feel good about themselves, start to connect with adult mentors, choose a career direction, and investigate colleges and universities. The goal is to create a consistently supportive culture that enables kids to graduate on time with their class, with some career development or college opportunity involved.

“We’re just that supportive entity that may or may not be in their home or otherwise be available to them,” she explains. “Not every kid has the parents that kind of push them along, so the club can often serve as that person in their lives.”

Clowning around … the world

In addition to helping kids grow academically, the former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performer still likes to entertain them as a clown at hospitals and before groups and clubs, and she still teaches “clowning” and comedic and performance art. Whether it’s pie or a seltzer in the face, or playing the ukulele and blowing bubbles for a hospitalized child, DeSanto finds clowning a joyful thing to do, one that a friend coined “selfish giving” because when you perform for someone, it “feeds” the performer as well as the audience.

“Oh boy, I love performing, and I love my clowning career,” DeSanto says. “I’m so lucky to keep doing it. The reaction is very primal, actually, because to make someone smile, to make someone happy, and to make someone laugh feeds someone’s soul. As a clown, a performer, and as a comic person, I’m lucky to be able to share that.”

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