A few weeks ago, Kaytie Kamphoff might have described herself as an extrovert who lived alone but went out a lot. The 35-year-old theater buff was a regular at the Guthrie and ran the drama club at Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis, where she works as a special education teacher.
The arrival of COVID-19 changed all that, of course. It confined Kamphoff to her 2-bedroom flat in Northeast. But it also expanded and enriched her household when she invited a former student who lacked stable housing to join her.
Kaytie served as 18-year-old Jania (pronounced Ja-nye-a) Kloeppel’s case manager for four years, so she got to know the bright, outgoing student she refers to as “the mascot of Henry” very well. “Jania was — and is — a very popular student with many of our staff members,” Kaytie said. “There was not one single human at Patrick Henry High School over her tenure that wouldn’t know who Jania is.”
“Because when I come into the school, everybody just gets a smile on their face because I’m amazing,” Jania explained.
When Kaytie first met Jania, she had been warned about the girl’s behavioral problems and resistance of authority. But Kaytie’s calm patience eventually won over Jania. (“Jania likes to say things to get a reaction out of you, and I’m really good at keeping a straight face,” Kaytie said.)
Post-high school graduation last June, the two stayed in touch. In the fall, Jania attended the Dougherty Family College at the University of St. Thomas, which helps students facing financial, academic and social obstacles get a four-year degree. But an altercation with a student who had been bullying Jania led to her suspension. In the winter, Jania started an internship at Full Cycle bike shop in Minneapolis where she learned skills such as changing tires and replacing brake pads. But COVID-19 shuttered the shop and put her out of a job.
She also lacked a comfortable place to live. Jania had moved around a lot growing up, frequently experiencing homelessness. Most recently, she had been staying with her uncle’s family in St. Paul, sharing tight quarters with several cousins.
When Kaytie learned that Jania was sleeping on the living room couch, she decided to turn her home office into a bedroom and invited Jania to stay with her during the pandemic. “I just said you’re coming over, this is ridiculous,” Kaytie recalled.
“Also, she needed help with her life just a little bit,” Jania said.
For the past several weeks, the flatmates’ relationship has been symbiotic. Jania, a morning person, serves as a human alarm clock who also cooks breakfast (eggs and hash is her specialty). If Kaytie is taking too long to get out of bed, Jania engages in a sort of adult-teenager role-reversal. “If she doesn’t get up and the food is done, I just take her computer and her phone and set them on the table,” Jania said. “It’s funny how the tables have turned on that one,” Kaytie said.
Since Kaytie’s teaching responsibilities have glued her to the computer for a good portion of the day, Jania has been helping with chores, such as taking care of Kaytie’s dog, Layla. Jania also frequently calls her younger siblings to check in, and these conversations have given Kaytie the chance to observe what a supportive and encouraging role Jania plays in her family.
At the end of the day, the two take walks, eat dinner, watch a little TV and, at Jania’s instigation, have nightly dance parties. The two are “living our best life,” Jania said.
Spending so much time together, the two have discovered a few ways in which their preferences diverge. Kaytie listens to MPR and likes to order a special dinner from the neighborhood’s retro-modern steak joint, Erte, while Jania would rather pair sad teen emo music with White Castle.
And then there is the matter of Kaytie’s spice rack. “She says that this is definitely a white person’s house,” Kaytie said.
“I’ve never seen so much sea salt in a house,” Jania added. “You’ve got Himalayan salt and then you’ve got regular sea salt.”
Jania was also a bit horrified that Kaytie’s place had previously been a snack-free zone. “You can’t have people living together without snacks,” Jania insisted. “That is the number one thing you need in your house!” Fortunately, Kaytie relented and stocked the place with chips, fruit snacks and Italian ices.
Jania has earned the affection of Kaytie’s mom, who has started referring to Jania as her granddaughter. And Jania has also replaced Kaytie as Layla’s Top Dog. “I’ll be like, ‘Layla come here,’ ” Kaytie said. “And she just looks at me, and looks at Jania, and then walks toward Jania, and I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’ ”
Well, the dog obviously loves me more now,” Jania teased.
But overall, the new housemates have been enjoying their time together. “I feel like she knows me through and through and I know her equally well, so it’s actually been like very peaceful,” Kaytie said, deflecting Jania’s affectionate teasing about her graying roots.
Kaytie said that she had been thinking about being a foster parent for a while and that her experience taking Jania into her home has been so positive that she plans to do so in the future. She hopes that her childless millennial peers may also consider becoming foster parents, if they have the ability.
“We have so much, in comparison to so many other people,” she said. “If you’re able to help you should.”
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569