by Rodney Wilson
Editor, NKU Magazine
Ten years ago, Susan Landis was a high school senior looking at dorm rooms and preparing for her new life as a NKU college freshman. But by 2008, Landis was calling the back of a pickup truck home instead of enjoying campus life.
“I was accepted to NKU and really excited about starting,” says Landis. “NKU was my dream, but that’s when I started battling mental illness and, within a year, I was homeless. I didn’t think that I would ever be attending a four-year university. It just goes to show how quickly life can change.”
Now a NKU junior pursuing her bachelor’s in social work as a part of the Public Child Welfare Certification Program (PCWCP) program, Landis isn’t waiting until graduation to start impacting lives. In October 2016, she and her husband, Samuel Landis—also in his junior year as a full-time student at NKU—established local homeless outreach Maslow’s Army, a program based on mid-century psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which states that, once basic necessities such as food and shelter have been addressed, motivation for self-betterment becomes possible. Through weekly meal and clothing giveaways at Fountain Square, Maslow’s Army connects with the local homeless community in an effort to help individuals pursue a life off the street.
The effect of Maslow’s Army has been an undeniable force of good in the local homeless community since its inception, and local media has been quick to give the organization coverage, culminating in the recent news that Susan will receive one of The Enquirer’s 2017 Women of the Year awards. She will be the first NKU student and youngest winner to receive the honor.
“Just to be sitting here, not only being in the social work program as a part of PCWPC,” says Landis, “but then to be interviewed by the newspaper. I mean, it all came full circle.”
A Love Story at Heart
Upon being contacted by our magazine staff to discuss the prestigious award, Landis politely requested that her husband also be present for the talk. Once the interview began, it quickly became apparent how the couple’s love story is inseparable from the rest of the narrative—from their enrollment at NKU to the inception of Maslow’s Army.
“I went to Gateway Community and Technical College,” says Landis. (Both she and her husband are products of the innovative Gateway2NKU program.) “I returned in the fall of 2015, met my husband in spring of 2016 and we got married.”
“Math statistics,” says Samuel. “I hated that class.”
Upon their classroom meeting, the two agreed to a first date at O’Charley’s. “She suffered from social anxiety so bad that she shook the entire time,” says Samuel. “I thought, well, maybe she’s not sober or something? But it was social anxiety.”
When Samuel speaks of sobriety, he does so with a reverential weight—due to his own long struggle with alcohol and drug addiction, he lived on the streets of Cincinnati for two decades before getting clean and finding his way to that Gateway statistics class.
“We started talking on the phone,” he says. “I told her a little bit about myself—my homelessness, my addiction, my own mental illness—and we found that we had a lot in common and were both really trying to improve ourselves.”
With the shared experience of homelessness between them, the Landises secured work at a mental health facility and became certified peer support specialists. But they couldn’t shake the feeling they could do more.
“My husband first broached the idea. He said, ‘Why don’t we just start our own non-profit?’ and I was like, ‘ Honey, we will be poor. We will be the clients. We can’t do this.’ But he just kept encouraging me, and finally I said, ‘Okay. Let’s do it.’”
The couple began by printing up a hot meal guide listing all the soup kitchens in Greater Cincinnati for the homeless, which they passed out at the annual Fall Feast. The Landises followed the guide up with a mid-January walk through downtown, handing hats, gloves and scarves to the homeless population. They promised they’d be back the following week, a promise they’ve kept every Sunday since with pizza meals on Fountain Square.
“We love what we do,” says Landis. “Even if I never get a paycheck for Maslow’s, I don’t care. I just love to do it. I love to help people.”
A Reward of Its Own
Landis’s spirit of giving made her an easy choice for The Enquirer’s 2017 Women of the Year Awards, a prestigious program begun in 1968 to honor the contributions of exceptional women in the Cincinnati area. This year marks the paper’s first time teaming with The Greater Cincinnati Foundation to further enhance the award’s impact. For Landis, the award’s youngest-ever recipient, her win was highly unexpected.
“We were in Kroger, doing some grocery shopping, and we get this call,” she says. “My husband’s like, ‘Here, you have to take this.’ So I took the phone and it’s somebody from the Cincinnati Enquirer.’” After a name mishap—the caller initially asked for Sandra—Landis took some convincing to finally accept she’d won. “I’m thinking they called the wrong person here. He said, ‘You won Woman of the Year,’ and I was still like, ‘Are you sure you’re not trying to get ahold of somebody else?’”
The award puts Landis in the company of such local luminaries as Bobbie Sterne and Rachel Votruba. And while she’s excited to attend the luncheon and accept the award, Landis isn’t letting the award distract from her dedication to Maslow’s Army. With plans to acquire a building out of which they can establish a soup kitchen and permanent outreach facilities, and a dream of expanding their outreach to the homesless populations of Daytona, Orlando, Denver, Indianapolis and Lexington, Landis and her husband are laser focused on their mission.
“I’m just so honored,” she says. “I never expected to win this. I just do what I love to do—I like to help people.”
Click here to learn more about Maslow's Army.