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Accelerated nursing grad leads charge to provide aid to the homeless

Hearts in the Park committee
Katie (Wegleitner) Cramer, far right, with co-workers who organized Hearts in the Park, an outreach to the homeless in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Katie Cramer
Katie Cramer

Katie (Wegleitner) Cramer already was serving in the South Dakota National Guard’s 147th Army Band and going to school full time at Northern State University when she picked up a side job.

That job at Bethesda Nursing Home in Aberdeen did more than give her some spending money, it pointed her to her career. The Lake City native spent almost four years as a nursing assistant. “I loved taking care of the geriatric population, those with dementia, unable to care for themselves. I loved that and decided to take it to the next level and be an RN,” she said.

For Cramer, the perfect option was the 11-month accelerated program SDSU operates on the Northern State campus.

She graduated from Northern in 2016 with degrees in music performance and musical theater. In 2017, she took nursing prerequisites and began classes in January 2018 with graduation in December. Cramer flourished. She graduated with honors, was inducted into Sigma Theta Tau and was president of the local Student Nurses Association.

Immediately after graduation, she was hired by Gundersen Medical Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, while continuing to serve in the 147th Army Band.

She took her servant heart along with her. While working on the medical-surgical behavioral health unit, “We would take care of a lot of the unsheltered population.” Cramer developed a soft spot for the homeless.


COVID-19’s collateral consequences

When COVID-19 cases developed in the United States, Cramer volunteered to work in Gundersen’s unit. Initially, it was slow work. Some nurses were furloughed. Even though COVID-19 patients then were few and far apart, homeless shelters reduced their capacity to 50% and other services were curtailed or cutback.

Cramer said the result that more homeless people were ending up in the hospital for nonCOVID-19 concerns.

“We decided enough is enough.”

Cramer and a few other nurses planned an outreach to a park where the homeless live and would provide food and basic care. What ended up happening Sept. 1 was “Hearts in the Park,” a community outreach that served more than 100 people and involved 40 volunteers. Cramer was founder, chair and lead organizer.


Community support overwhelming

She tangled with municipal red tape and some negative attitudes in the community to stage the event, “but the positive overwhelmed the negative.”

“We reached out to the community and that’s where we got our help. More than 700 masks were donated by the fire department. Hairdressers and barbers donated their services, food stands were set up, clothing and hygiene supplies were given out. Not every single person we had hoped was supportive and it was a lot of hard work, but we helped so many people,” Cramer said.

The statistics show: 100+ cold meals served, 60 hot meals served, 80+ hygiene bags and 60+ PPE’s given out, 20 haircuts/beard trims, and 20 provided foot/wound care.

In addition, there was a community clothing drop-off for the homeless with a semitractor-trailer load of clothing collected. Cash donations of $4,952 were collected with $152 used to fill hygiene bags and $4,800 donated to the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness.

“I’m super grateful for all the help I got. At a time in our country where there is so much darkness and uncertainty, it was nice to be able to do something that was compassionate and caring,” Cramer said.

She said there already is talk of making the three-hour event an annual effort.