As a child, Toi Dennis experienced something no child should ever have to face: homelessness. Raised by a single mother, Dennis was the oldest of four children in a family that struggled to stay afloat. Money was always tight; meals were often missed; and Dennis and her family sometimes had no place to stay the night.

“Without the community support and resources that were available, I don’t think we would’ve been able to survive,” she says, recalling the social-service programs and generous strangers who provided them with food, shelter, and other necessities.

In spite of such challenges, Dennis eventually went to college, earning a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree. Her focus was social services, and after graduation, the U.S. Department of Defense recruited her to work overseas in child development and then community services. Returning to the U.S. a few years later, she decided to pursue a doctoral degree in human services at Capella University. Perhaps not surprisingly, her chief interest was in studying homelessness. “I wanted to know if other children experienced some of the same things that I and my siblings did,” she says.


A Dissertation—and a Baby

Initially, Dennis was overwhelmed by the rigor of Capella’s courses. “The research process was very intense,” she says. But when she realized that her personal experience gave her insight into the very topic she was researching, she felt greater confidence and the work began to come more easily. “Time management is the key,” she says. “ “You have to find a way to do what you’ve been doing and, on top of that, get an education. But it can be done.”

Juggling work and classes was plenty challenging. But perhaps the toughest test of all came when Dennis had to defend her dissertation. Pregnant at the time, Toi had scheduled her defense several weeks before her baby’s due date—only to be taken by surprise when her daughter arrived early. “My committee said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? You just had a baby!’” Dennis recalls. “But I went ahead with it. It was overwhelming, but also a great experience.”


Starting a Shelter

Dennis earned a PhD in Human Services with a specialization in Social and Community Services from Capella, and she earns an income from online teaching. But her passion is developing a shelter for homeless women and children in Clarksville, Tennessee, where she now lives. “I want to do for others what was done for our family,” Dennis says.

In 2012, Dennis initiated work on Serenity House, whose mission is to provide supportive services to homeless women and children. The nonprofit organization remains small and has yet to construct a permanent home, but Dennis and her team, including a part-time case manager and a flock of volunteers, have provided services to more than 200 women since Serenity House launched.

The virtual organization provides temporary shelter in area hotels, covers security deposits for housing, and pays energy bills—all through grants and community donations. “We partner with a lot of organizations in our area,” Dennis says. Counseling services and assistance with life-skills development are also available through Serenity House.


Honored for Her Work

Dennis’s work in Clarksville has earned her honors and recognition. She was named Citizen of the Year in her hometown in 2014 and was recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Last year, at the request of the mayor of Clarksville, she facilitated a conference on homelessness. “Sometimes you wonder if anyone is noticing,” she says. “When you get honors like this, it’s confirmation that you are impacting lives and making a difference.”

Dennis says she uses her doctoral education every day as she synthesizes information about homelessness and figures out how to articulate it in ways that will help others grasp the problem, create empathy, and evoke action. In many ways, she says, forming a women’s shelter is a natural next step after earning a PhD. Though fundraising for a permanent building is ongoing and the work is often challenging, Dennis says, “For me, it feels like I’m bringing my dissertation to life.”



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