MICHIGAN CITY – Music helped Nanda Danitschek "rise above" a troubled childhood, and she's trying to bring a little bit of peace and harmony to the lives of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Danitschek is the new executive director of Stepping Stone, which operates an emergency shelter and a transitional housing facility in Michigan City.
"I've been through a lot of what these people have been through," the La Porte High School grad said. "Growing up, my family dealt with poverty. I remember dinners of popcorn and getting block cheese from the government. I suffered PTSD from childhood trauma and I understand what troubled kids are going through.
"Singing was the one thing I had going for me. It helped me to rise above my upbringing, and now I feel an obligation to help. I'm an educator at heart. I did substitute teaching for special ed, especially kids in there for trauma. I tell them, 'I am you' and 'I understand what it's like.' A lot of other people grow up and try to forget about it."
While singing has always been her first love – she took second place in Hoosier STAR in 2006, first in 2010, and won STAR of Stars in 2016 – she said she realized it "wasn't a practical career choice."
So she went to college and focused on her other passion – women's issues.
And that's what eventually brought her to Stepping Stone.
"The Stepping Stone emergency shelter provides 24-hour crisis relief for victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault, and their children, along with rape recovery programs," she said.
"There are eight housing units, and there are always people there and always kids there, along with members of the LGBTQ community and ADA community. These are mostly people who are at risk of homelessness due to sexual assault."
There is a 45-day maximum stay and then clients "either cycle out or we secure housing for them. We also help with things like legal assistance, restraining orders and referrals."
Securing housing could lead clients to the Bridges Transitional Housing and Learning Center, which Danitschek described as "a follow-up program where every resident has an adult case manager for everything from literacy skills to parental skills, self-confidence programs, job readiness, healthy living ...
"It provides living space for individuals or families like dorm rooms or small apartments, a computer lab, kids' room, health room, cafeteria and fully-operational kitchen. It's unique because we employ cooks and serve home-cooked meals."
There are 15 residential units, and "there are always at least some units housing people," she said. They can stay for 18 months and "ideally they will look for permanent housing while here," she said.
Both facilities are funded by grants from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute in coordination with the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault.
"These are state and federal grants that are very complex," Danitschek said. "There are a lot more rules and regulations than in getting a grant for the the arts [she formerly worked as executive director of the La Porte County Symphony]."
Stepping Stone has 25 employees between both facilities, and anywhere from five to 20 volunteers at any time, she said. "Some only come once a year to work on special events, others are here all the time. Both facilities are open 24 hours so they help out with everything."
But, she said, "It's harder to find volunteers who want to work directly with the clients, easier to find for maintenance and facility management."
Whatever they do, "It costs a lot to run these facilities and grants only cover a portion. That's why volunteers are so important to what we do," she said.
While assistant director Mary Anderson focuses on grant management, payroll and compliance, Danitschek said, "I do a lot of grant work, staff development and outreach – it's a lot of on-the-job learning for me."
Research and development relate directly to her education – B.S. in Psychology from Purdue North Central; and a Master's in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Adler University.
"My undergrad degree was in psychology, with an emphasis on gender studies and sociology," she said. "I'm very passionate about women's issues.
"The late Prof. Rachel Steffens at PNC was passionate about awareness and prevention of sexual assault. So when this position came up, given my passion for the field and direction from her, it feels like it was meant for me.
"I need a mission and what could be more important than homeless victims of sexual assault. It feels good to know that I'm making an impact and helping make change."
She's done so in several ways, including as a member and/or officer of the La Porte Service League, Arts in the Park, La Porte County United Way, La Porte County Symphony Orchestra, and La Porte Little Theatre Club.
Now she wants to use her I/O psychology background in that effort.
"It's like Google, where they let the employees play at work – that's I/O, how to make the best impact on the workforce to get more productivity. It's a new and burgeoning field, but I'm more mission driven, and drawn to social justice issues, Danitschek said.
"I want to bring the principles of I/O to smaller groups ... We can create an impact beyond our walls. We can help the workforce and help places like Sand Castle [homeless shelter] ... I could make a lot more money consulting or working for a Fortune 500, but I would rather make an impact on the world than make a lot of money."
She'd like to start by expanding Stepping Stone's reach, she said. "One part is bringing more awareness to the community and bringing men into the conversation. That is a crucial part of stopping domestic violence, rather than just reacting to it."
While the focus used to be on prevention, it has now switched to prevention, she said. And getting youth involved in the conversation is critical, she said, citing a United Way community needs assessment that pointed out the "sense of empathy" among youth today.
Programs in schools and events more geared toward kids – like adding a Superhero Race to a fundraising 5K – are among the efforts she's starting toward that end.
And as for her music?
"I sing the National Anthem quite a bit and used to do a lot of theater before I went back to school," she said. "I have been working very hard to get away from being Nanda 'the singer' to being Nanda 'the professional and community advocate'."
But, she says with a smile, "I still sing with the kids [at Bridges] whenever I can. They call me 'The Boss' and they just love when I sing to them or with them."
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Whether it’s combating sexual assault and domestic violence, helping the homeless, providing medical services to the underinsured or working to better their communities, many people and organizations in La Porte County are truly making a difference, many doing so out of the public eye. Our special Making a Differece section – Section D in today's paper – spotlights some of those efforts. And we will continue to run stories in future editions to highlight some of the good work being done in the community. If you know of a person or organization going above and beyond to help others, contact Jeff Mayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.