For the past two decades, Joanne Dunn has worked to improve the lives of troubled youths in Westchester, making her more than qualified to serve as the first woman to be named executive director of The Youth Shelter Program of Westchester since its inception, in 1975. But her résumé says only so much about why she is the best candidate to head up the Mount Vernon-based organization that functions as a homelike alternative to incarceration for young adult men. “I had all the ingredients to be a resident myself.”
A lifelong Peekskill resident, Dunn was 4 years old when her father went to prison for just shy of three decades. Her mother, an alcoholic and victim of domestic violence, was unable to maintain the family home, so Dunn and her four siblings found themselves homeless, living in a shelter.
At 13, Dunn and her siblings went to live with their grandmother, whom she lovingly calls “the anchor of our family.” But when that port in the storm lost her home and job as an off-the-books seamstress, the children were separated, and Dunn, then a senior in high school, was uprooted again. But this time, she landed on solid ground. “I was placed in the home of a woman who would become my saving grace.”
That woman was Valerie Swan, who “challenged me to think,” says Dunn, and whom she thinks of to this day as a second mother. “Valerie wouldn’t let me have a pity party for myself,” recalls Dunn. “She pushed me to finish school, go to college, get a job. She made sure I was in good circles of people, who could influence me in the right ways.”
Dunn did finish high school, and she went on to Benedict College in South Carolina on a nearly full math scholarship. “I loved math, but I really felt called to work with people whose paths mirrored mine.” And so, after graduation, she took a job as a volunteer assistant at the Peekskill Youth Bureau, where Swan was executive director.
“It doesn’t matter what’s behind you; it’s what’s in front of you and what you want your story to be.”
Dunn moved on and up in the world of youth advocacy and empowerment, settling into a 12-year stint at Westhab, a Yonkers social services and community development organization, where she eventually became assistant vice president of youth and employment services.
In January, just as the coronavirus was picking up speed, Dunn stepped into her groundbreaking role at The Youth Shelter Program of Westchester, with a mission to not only provide a home for the 18- to 21-year-old offenders who were sent there instead of jail or prison but also to address their emotional and educational needs and guide them on the road to better lives. “This is personal to me,” says Dunn. “I want to be the caring adult in their lives, the one pushing them to overcome their situations… just like Valerie Swan did for me.”
And because she knows firsthand what it’s like to live in a shelter and survive a short lifetime of adversity, Dunn believes she can help the young men in her program “beat the odds,” just as she did, with a helping hand from someone who cares. “I want to restore and transform these young men and give them new hope and energy that there is life beyond the shelter,” a mission she drives home on a constant basis.
“I talk with them every morning, and I say goodnight before I leave,” says Dunn. “I carve out time to sit with them, do activities together, and do some thinking out loud with them about what they feel they need to be successful.”
Swan is not at all surprised that Dunn is so hands-on at the shelter. “Her heart is committed to helping anyone who needs help,” says Swan, a Croton resident who retired from the Peekskill Youth Bureau in 2015. “It’s her life’s journey, and I don’t think she’d be happy doing anything else.”
A woman of faith and a firm believer in “the power of restoration and second chances,” Dunn reminds the young men in her care that “it doesn’t matter what’s behind you; it’s what’s in front of you and what you want your story to be,” impressing on them that “they have the power to change their narratives,” and she is living proof of that.
“My husband and I thought we’d fill the gaps for these kids in need, but they filled the gap for us.”
Dunn also wants to help them “channel pain into purpose,” which is exactly what she set out to do by becoming a foster parent not long after suffering two late-term prenatal losses. “My husband and I thought we’d fill the gaps for these kids in need, but they filled the gap for us.”
The couple recently adopted a 4-year-old boy they had fostered and are in the process of adopting a 2-year-old foster girl, which, when combined with a 6-year-old biological son, makes for a full house.
As for how this 41-year-old working mom juggles it all: “I have a wonderful husband, who told me: ‘You go do you and be you. I’ll step up with the kids.’” A grand gesture on his part, since after 20 years of working side by side with at-risk youth around the county, Dunn means it when she says, “I have hundreds of children I think of as my own.”