By Jayna Omaye
Katie McNamara has always had the gift of lighting up a room. Since childhood, she’d talk to anyone she met, from her friends and family to the strangers in the doctor’s office. She’s always loved getting to know people and has a way with making them feel comfortable enough to open up. And now she’s using that gift to help others in need.
As a resident assistant at a homeless shelter in Virginia, McNamara, 32, does more than just run the facility’s operations. When she’s not restocking supplies, writing shift reports, making sure everyone is physically distancing and wearing masks, administering medication, and handling conflicts that arise among the residents, she makes time to talk to anyone who needs help. That’s her favorite part of the job.
“I have always been the type of person who, if they need help, I’m going to help them,” she says. “I really enjoy my job.”
McNamara, a Virginia native, always knew she wanted to help people, but she didn’t know how to do that until she enrolled in Beacon College. Middle and high school were rough for McNamara, who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. She says she didn’t do well in school and never wanted to ask for help, fearing her peers would say that she’s “stupid, but when in reality, I just didn’t understand.” For her, college seemed daunting.
But when her mom suggested she enroll in community college, McNamara researched universities for students with learning disabilities and visited Beacon during spring break. She was determined to go for a bachelor’s degree and enrolled in 2011. It was a general psychology class during her first semester that inspired her to pursue human services.
While at Beacon, learning specialist Michele Patestides taught McNamara tools that helped her learn the material, as well as how to make lists and set a routine, which helps her manage her learning differences at work. Patestides also encouraged McNamara to reward herself with fun and not just study all of the time.
Taking that advice, McNamara played soccer at Beacon. She also started a healthy cooking class, taught ballroom dancing lessons and worked as a peer tutor. One of her favorite memories was driving to Orlando with her classmates to watch Broadway shows.
“I had a community of people who understood where I was coming from. I knew that I wasn’t the only one struggling,” she says. ”I learned that it’s OK to ask for help when you need it. That was a big one for me.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in human services in 2014, McNamara taught English for one year in China through a program offered by Beacon. It was the first time she’d ever been to Asia, and she loved the experience and traveling. She then landed a job as a mental health specialist at a children’s psychiatric hospital in Virginia. There, she worked on the boys’ unit managing their daily routines, school and therapy sessions. But her favorite part of the job was the moments of downtime when she’d do art projects and play board games with them. She wanted to make the unit feel like a home.
And when a teenager living at the homeless shelter that McNamara now works at needed help that same compassion and care showed through. She mentored the teen and told her that if she wanted to be a counselor, she’d have to graduate from college. When the teenager needed a job to pay for housing, she encouraged her to apply for what she could find instead of feeling embarrassed about the type of job she could get.
“I really enjoy helping them,” McNamara says. “I feel so successful that I’ve accomplished something. I’ve worked so hard to get to this point.”