Women of Industry: Karen DeSanto, rural champion

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.”



When she was a clown with Ringling, the falls and the slapstick and the travel was more physically demanding than people think, but she was very proud to be one of the few women in clowning. She would eventually become a director of clowning for Feld Entertainment and later moved to Baraboo with husband Greg and daughter Emily to perform with the Circus World Museum.

During her nine-year tenure at Circus World, DeSanto served as the director of education and outreach. She helped to create a Wisconsin history unit to educate children about our circus heritage. It featured a traveling trunk of information and hands-on activities that teachers could order from Circus World. That experience helped lead her to the Boys & Girls Clubs of West Central Wisconsin, which were struggling both systematically and financially.

For DeSanto, the varied professional experiences are intertwined. “It’s so funny because when people hear you’re a circus clown, and you’re with the Boys and Girls Club, it’s a difficult connection for people to make sometimes. I happen to be a professional businesswoman, as well as this other entity. My career as a clown and traveling all over the world and meeting all different kinds of people has given me such a wealth of information as I get older and I continue my career, and it infiltrates into everything.

“Everything that I’ve learned on the road, as a clown, I still use today in the world as a businessperson, as an executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs. Everyone has a great story. I think mine is unique, but everybody has a great story.”

Does she clown for the kids in the club, too? “I do, absolutely. They love it, and the kids in the club love the idea that their boss is a clown.”

Read the rest of our 2017 Women of Industry features:

  • Christine Beatty, senior center and senior services director for the Madison Senior Center
  • Teri Bruns, vice president of global partner solutions for VMware
  • Deborah Gilpin, president and CEO, Madison Children's Museum

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