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She Has A Heart As Big As Texas

February 28, 2007
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer

Jessica DeSantis is not good at sitting still. She talks with her head, and her hands. She talks fast, too. People mistake the 31-year-old for someone much younger. She was even carded recently, if you can imagine.

A list-maker like her mother, DeSantis is also a server, the front-of-the-house training coordinator and the local store marketer at Hartford's Texas Roadhouse restaurant. If she talks fast, she works faster. Within 45 minutes of getting that last job at the restaurant, DeSantis had written up a plan for a food and donations drive to benefit a Hartford shelter, Mercy Housing and Shelter Corp.

If a food drive in March (it starts Friday) seems odd, understand that DeSantis once worked at the Manchester Area Council of Churches' Samaritan Shelter. She knows that shelters' needs continue long past the traditional giving season of the end-of-the-year holidays. People are still hungry and homeless in February, March, August. But she also knows that most people think of donations specifically as a holiday thing, so she's added a little incentive.

"If I have to bribe people to give, I'll do that," DeSantis said, laughing. That means gift certificates and coupons in exchange for donations.

She chose Mercy because of the depth and breadth of its programs, from psychological services to meals to transitional housing. While diners munch their rattlesnake bites (bits of breaded cheese with jalapeño peppers) or chicken critter salad (the name speaks for itself), DeSantis hopes they bring along bedding, towels, travel-size toiletries, laundry detergent, socks, underwear (men's and women's) and gift cards to stores like Dunkin' Donuts. DeSantis is motivated. On the to-do list on her legal pad (she calls it her action plan), there are notes in neat print, many of the lines marked: "Done!"

DeSantis grew up in East Hartford. She attended Manchester Community College, and moved on to American International College in Springfield. She thinks about law school and, given her organizational skills, she'd probably be good at it.

Although Texas Roadhouse is part of a chain, individual restaurants aren't iron-bound by corporate approval for initiatives like this. DeSantis' local higher-ups gave her a thumbs-up rather quickly. (In fact they were amazed that she got everything organized - the brochures, the incentive plan - so quickly. It was like she'd just been waiting for a chance to do this.)

The restaurant sits with other retail establishments on land that once was the site of the 1,000-unit Charter Oak Terrace housing project. Because she's a native, DeSantis remembers the discussions that went into destroying those old, troubled buildings. Not long after the restaurant opened, DeSantis heard a diner say wonderingly: "We are sitting in what used to be my living room." The woman allowed that even though the location was strange, businesses like the restaurant were "making the community better," said DeSantis.

Besides helping out Mercy - which is as challenged as the next shelter in its attempts to step into the gap - DeSantis wants diners to learn a little bit about homelessness.

"I want people to know that this could happen to anybody," said DeSantis. Her first exposure to the tenuousness of housing came a few years ago, when a friend's parents were divorcing. The friend's mother lost her job, and for a while, her friend moved from family member to family member, essentially homeless. That Thanksgiving, her friend received one of those donation food baskets for the holiday. It was shocking to DeSantis that this young woman who'd had it all was now relying on donations to survive.

From the time she spent at the Manchester shelter, DeSantis knows you can only help people so much. But you can help. The drive continues through April 2.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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