When Marina Marmolejo ’13 graduated with her Master’s from the Yale School of Public Health with an idea for an app to support young people experiencing homelessness, she had her work cut out for her. Now, young adults can earn DreamKit points by attending community-hosted events like case management meetings, parenting classes and resume-building workshops, and they can use these points to “buy” food, hygiene products or even haircuts. As they build new skills, members can also use their DreamKit profile like a resume to find jobs, housing and mentors. Marina assembled a dedicated team, including youths who have faced homelessness, to build and scale the app, but then COVID-19 hit, and she had to reconsider her entire organizational model.
“It was wild,” says Marina. “It’s so hard because nobody knows how to plan for this.” So DreamKit did a quick pivot, and Marina took its services virtual. “We could no longer rely on other folks doing great work in the community to host DreamKit events. Now we had to create everything internally.”
She and her team posted videos on how to make quick meals, shared stress-coping techniques, and set up a phone hotline. They pioneered new partnerships and worked even harder to make sure the people using the app didn’t fall through the cracks. And instead of shutting down their project, like many other ventures have done during this pandemic, DreamKit onboarded 19 new summer interns.
At 25 years old, Marina credits Mayfield for helping her hone a sense of purpose at such a young age. “As a teenager, being part of an educational community that emphasizes social justice so much, it’s almost impossible to avoid this type of thinking in your adult life.” She laughs, reflecting on how she used to think the Holy Child pedagogy was shared across most high schools. “I just thought it was normal to have speakers come in and talk about how they are working with at-risk populations and different career paths you could take.” Finding a direction that was linked to care and community, for Marina, was “a no-brainer.”
But Marina has chosen a cause that many people have a hard time even discussing. “Homeless or not, poverty is just uncomfortable. Poverty is something that makes you feel guilty if you don’t experience it or know how to engage with it.” Marina notes how quickly people want to distance themselves from this discomfort, falling into “easy coping mechanisms to shut it off.”
The stories we tell about homelessness are as pervasive as they are pernicious, says Marina. We know the lines like: people are on the street because they made bad choices. Even referring to a population as “homeless” isn’t straightforward, because it doesn’t give an accurate view of the housing challenges that youths really face. There are reasons these young people left their homes: physical abuse, drug use, families who rejected their sexual or gender identity. Marina prefers the term “unstably housed” because, at any given point, these youths could easily be on the street.
Exclusion and “othering” are ideas that Marina has thought a lot about. Socioeconomic status wasn’t discussed much at her schools, but Marina remembers her own sense of anxiety growing up in certain unfamiliar spaces. “You go to people’s houses and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, these multi-million-dollar houses,’ and you don’t have that.”
But when DreamKit eventually moves out of its pilot stage in New Haven, Connecticut, Marina will often be the bridge between the population she serves and the people who have the resources to offer financial support. And as she moves between communities, Marina’s work aligns closely with Catholic social justice teachings: When you “recognize those who are being excluded, you have a responsibility to bring them into the circle.”
Marina describes what it looks like to build meaningful experiences of trust, especially when engaging with people who come from different backgrounds. The approach has to be: “I hear you, I see you, I want to learn from you.” When you realize that the people you’re hoping to help understand their own challenges much more than you do, and you empower them with decision-making agency, the power dynamic can start to shift, Marina says. “It’s a journey.”
In spite of the uncertainties ahead, Marina loves what she does, and knows a lot of people her age are still struggling to find their career path. “I feel really, really lucky,” she says. “One hundred percent I feel like I’ve had no wasted days.”
Marina Marmolejo ’13 also went to Mayfield Junior School, earned her B.A. in Health and Human Sciences from Loyola Marymount University and graduated from the Yale School of Public Health in May 2020 with an MPH. To learn more about DreamKit or to support Marina’s work with homeless youth, go to www.dreamkitapp.com. (Look closely at the team page and you may recognize another Mayfield alumna—Kaitlyn Maddigan ’17, who’s currently studying at Loyola Marymount University, and works with DreamKit as a Youth Communications Specialist.)