An Interview with Katelyn Malis

Roberta Machin, BA

 

Katelyn Malis, recently appointed Director of Programs at Open Hearth, feels like she’s home again after a lot of twists and turns in her career.  Growing up as an army brat, Katelyn moved around a lot, but spent most of her childhood in San Antonio, TX before moving to Montgomery County in High School.  While in grade school, Katelyn considered being an actress, and participated in all of the school plays.  But she also had an empathetic side to her from an early age.  “I felt very in touch with others, and I always rooted for the underdog,” said Katelyn.  “I lived a sheltered life when I was young – but my parents made a point to make us aware of how fortunate we were, so that we did not take anything for granted.  Still, growing up I didn’t see homelessness unless it was portrayed in films, which you know is incredibly stereotypical.”

Originally interested in law, Katelyn majored in psychology with a minor in justice at American University.  Preparing to go to law school, Katelyn says that her experiences at two internships redirected her career plans.  She interned at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., advising mental health clients of their legal rights, and she interned at a criminal defense law firm in Philadelphia.  “I realized law wasn’t for me,” Katelyn said.  “I wanted to do something more helpful, and I enjoyed focusing on the rehabilitative, rather than the punitive aspects of these experiences.”

At Katelyn’s first job at Fellowship Health Resources in Phoenixville, she worked as a resource coordinator.  “I’d say that 75% of my caseload was struggling with homelessness,” said Katelyn.  “For me, this flipped the stigma of homelessness upside down.  I began to realize that in a county as affluent as Chester, poverty hides in plain sight.  So I started referring a lot of my clients to Open Hearth’s Gateway program, and we forged a great relationship.  After two years, they recruited me for the position of program coordinator.”

Two years ago, Katelyn left Open Hearth to work in the corporate world – and she hated it.  “I had no passion,” she said.  “Now that I’m back at Open Hearth, I feel reenergized.  I’m proud of what I’m doing and I’m proud to be here.”  As Director of Programs, Katelyn is experiencing a completely new role.  “Open Hearth is a small organization, so I wear a lot of hats,” she said.  “Since I’m a supervisor, my first responsibility is to my staff, supporting them and addressing their concerns.  And since they work directly with our clients, it’s important that they feel supported.  I also meet weekly with our housing team to go over their caseload and problem-solve – that’s how I get energized.”

Katelyn admires her boss, Kelly, for always searching for creative solutions and handling each situation with tact and poise.  She also draws inspiration from her clients, for showing resiliency in the face of hardship and getting up each day to do what needs to get done.  “I don’t know how I would handle being in their shoes,” she said.  For Katelyn, success at her job comes from helping her clients achieve their goals and find permanent housing – and then seeing them years later, still stably housed.  “You don’t always get a thank you,” said Katelyn.  “But you don’t really need one.”

Katelyn feels proud of the work she does, which helps her get through the tough days.  “We are doing something bigger than ourselves, and that leaves a lasting difference.  It’s a ripple effect – if you help one person, they can pay it forward and help someone else.”  Katelyn also admits that some ice cream and maybe a margarita after work helps her destress after a long day – “And I couldn’t get through the day without coffee, and lots of it,” she laughs.

As a perfectionist and a very type A individual, Katelyn gives 110%, and expects others to do the same.  “I have high expectations for the people I work with,” said Katelyn.  “I want to be approachable and friendly, and I prefer to be flexible, not rigid.  In my younger years I was a hippie wild child, but now I like more structure.  Still, accessing my strict side is tough sometimes.”

In her free time, Katelyn enjoys living a simple life.  She loves watching The Office on Netflix with her fiancé and her cats.  “As soon as I move into a house, I want a puppy,” Katelyn admits.  “I have a soft spot for animals in need.  I want to adopt every animal I see.”  Katelyn also loves to travel whenever she gets the chance.  When asked who she would want to play her in the movie about her life, she responded, “Kristen Bell.  People have likened me to her before.”  She would also choose to be a horse if she could be any animal, because they are wild and free.

Katelyn advises those who are interested in beginning a career in social work to separate their work from their life.  “At the end of the day, turn off,” she said.  “The bleeding hearts in this line of work will hemorrhage, and there will be nothing left of them.  Don’t take a client’s failure personally – they weren’t trying to hurt you.  Sometimes, people have opportunities in front of them, but they choose to take a different path that’s maybe not so good for them and end up self-sabotaging.  Even if this happens, try to put yourself in their shoes to understand what’s really going on, and treat them the way you would like to be treated.”

When asked to think about her most memorable day of work, Katelyn recalls working at Fellowship with a client who was very closed off and guarded.  Slowly, she developed trust with him.  Before he left the program, he wrote her a beautiful handwritten letter, thanking her for helping him.  A few months ago, when Katelyn returned to Open Hearth, the client stopped by her office.  “He heard that I was back and came to visit me.  He looked at me and said, ‘I knew you’d be back.  This is where you belong.  You’re meant to help people.’  I had kept his letter the whole time I was gone, and still have it now.  Sometimes, if I’m having a hard day, I reread the letter and think, ‘this is why I’m here.’”

Katelyn is proud to be a part of Decade to Doorways, and a voice among so many important voices within the community.  “I was in the county when D2D first began,” she said.  “I think that we can end homelessness in Chester County, but it’s going to take a lot of time and collaboration.  And even if we can’t, it doesn’t mean that we stop trying.”