Custodial kindness

Desi Starkey (middle) with UWL custodians Rita Anderson, left, and Leeann Dobson. “They made [UWL] a safe place for me to come,” praises Starkey. “If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be in school.”

Graduate overcomes difficulties on way to graduation

When Desi Starkey transferred to UW-La Crosse from a Texas college, she wanted to become a crime-scene investigator. That changed, but a new major is far from the biggest shift in her life. Starkey overcame living in a troubled home with “constant yelling and screaming,” she describes. “I was being put down with a lot of things people shouldn’t be told.”

Starkey watched her GPA drop to a 1.8, her appetite disappear and her hair fall out to the point a custodian asked if she had cancer. All because of stress and anxiety, said her doctor.

But here’s where the story changes. Starkey, who arrived on campus with the first city bus of the day, started spending time with the Cartwright Center custodial staff. “I felt safe at school once I met the custodians,” she remembers.

Custodial camaraderie

“Peanut” is what Rita Anderson, a UWL custodian, would call Starkey when they started talking those early mornings in Cartwright Center. Eventually, Starkey would meet more of the custodians and even study in their break room before she took a job with the custodial staff.

“If I was at home, I’d just get yelled at,” says Starkey. “I tried to be out as much as I could.”

Starkey would keep that custodial job while going to school as a full-time sociology major — and a 20+ hour part-time job.

On her way to joining the custodial staff, she became close with several of the custodians — most prominently was Leeann Dobson. “I noticed she didn’t have a good support system at home,” recalls Dobson. “We saw everything she was going through. There was so much stress.”

A home away from home

Desiree Starkey

As Starkey was preparing to start her fourth semester at UWL, she was given a new opportunity — again, thanks to the kindness of the custodians. Dobson and her husband invited Starkey to move in with them, to which she agreed.

“My life changed drastically,” says Starkey. “It took me a while to adjust to having my own independence, my own freedom.”

With the changes, Starkey was able to get help paying for college and upgrade her “piece of junk” car, as Dobson described it, along with seeing her hair grow back. Dobson also played matchmaker and introduced Starkey to her now fiancé.

Future ambitions

Starkey proudly walked the commencement stage in May with a job lined up. She’s a medical service coordinator at LHI with ambitions to get into the Human Resources department. “I really want to work in employee relations,” she says.

And knowing what she’s gone through, she has no doubts that it’s where she’ll end up.

“I said it in my head that I didn’t want to be a person who would give up. I wanted to be a good example for my brothers so they had someone to look up to,” says Starkey. “I honestly don’t think I would have graduated if it wasn’t for Rita, Leann —my adopted mom — and the rest of the custodians.”