Alum Working to Address Affordable Housing in St. Louis

Alumni; Practicum; Social Work

Lilly Murphy always knew she wanted to help make positive change in her hometown of St. Louis. After several false starts, she found her path and enrolled at the Brown School. In May 2023, she earned her master’s degree in social work. 

Initially, Murphy contemplated following in her parents’ footsteps and becoming a teacher. She earned a degree in psychology. She spent time working at the Magic House, a local children’s museum. Yet, her sense of uncertainty persisted. Finally, she discovered her true calling after embarking on an AmeriCorps VISTA position with the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative, an organization that works to reduce the negative impact of vacant property in the city of St. Louis. 

“I’ve always had a deep-seated desire to remain in St. Louis and make a meaningful impact on a systemic level,” she said. This realization prompted her to seek further education to maximize her contributions to the field. 

According to her, the Brown School emerged as the natural choice. “The people doing the work I aspired to do came from the Brown School,” she explained.

Murphy (2nd row center) with DeSales colleagues at a 2022 fundraising event.

Setting the Brown School apart is the unique opportunity for students to select their practicum sites. Murphy started her practicum experience at DeSales Community Development in June of 2022, equally drawn to its work to strengthen St. Louis neighborhoods and for the chance to witness the leadership transition from Tom Pickel, DeSales’s Executive Director of 35 years, to Becky Reinhart. Established in 1976, DeSales is one of the largest providers of affordable housing in the City of St. Louis. Its efforts involve housing development, property management, service coordination, and neighborhood improvement.

During her practicum at DeSales, Murphy focused on preparing federal grant applications for affordable housing projects. Reflecting on her experience, she noted the day-to-day involved tasks, though not glamourous, were authentic reflections of real-world scenarios.

“I gained insights into things that might seem simple or trivial on the surface, but are crucial aspects of the application process,” she explained.

Murphy’s practicum experience at DeSales transitioned into a permanent role when she was hired as the fundraising and communications manager. In this capacity, she oversees donor relations, fundraising events, grant writing, newsletters, and social media.

Murphy (left) and Thurman pose at the 2023 Brown School Excellence Awards, where Murphy was among the recipients of the Dr. Clara Louise Meyers Master of Social Work Outstanding Practicum Student Awards.

“My aim at DeSales is to simplify complex matters and highlight the humanity within them – finding the common ground that resonates with everyone,” she said. “Ultimately, our work is about providing folks with a stable place to live. This is integral to the mental, physical, and financial well-being of individuals, but also to the social and economic prospects of entire neighborhoods.” 

“The scale at which DeSales operates is incredible,” Murphy marveled.

In the past year alone, DeSales facilitated access to $2.1 million in rental assistance for residents and played a pivotal role in preserving a 152-unit affordable housing development near Lafayette Square.