Wrong Number. Right Project!

By Ellen S. Mommaerts

Director, Norbertine Volunteer Community

Ellen Mommaerts (left) and Bryce Watzka
Ellen Mommaerts (left) and Bryce Watzka

I entered my office one morning and saw the voicemail light blinking. The message went like this from the caller: “Hi Carol, I am calling because I was given your number and was told you could help my son find an Eagle Scout project. Please call me back when you have time.”

My reaction was one of confusion because I am not Carol and I did not know the person who had referred the caller to Carol. I took a chance and called the inquirer back, and left a voicemail that clarified that I am Ellen—director of the Norbertine Volunteer Community (NVC) and coordinator of the Three Corners Neighborhood Community Garden.

I told him that I had a specific idea for a project to build a garden storage shed at the garden location. Thus was born another Eagle Scout project and a partnership with Bryce Watzka—Eagle Scout candidate for Troop 1236 of St. Bernard Parish and 2017 graduate of Notre Dame de la Baie Academy in Green Bay.

The Watzka family has had a Norbertine connection through Prémontré High School, Notre Dame de la Baie Academy, and St. Norbert College (SNC) for generations. This accidental project added another Norbertine connection. To my surprise, one of the volunteers that day was Evan Watzka, now entering his sophomore year at SNC, who had come to the NVC residence as a volunteer his first year at SNC during the college’s annual “Into the Streets” community service event, proving the world is a small place.

I worked with Bryce, his dad Kelly, and uncle Scott on the planning, and with Bryce’s extended family, fellow troop members, and friends. We volunteered by fundraising and executing the construction of the storage shed just days shy of Bryce’s 18th birthday and leaving home to begin his college career.

I pray in gratitude … I know [this project] will benefit our community garden efforts well into the future.

—Ellen Mommaerts

NVC Garden ShedThe final result of the $1,032 project is a great storage building on the garden site, allowing us to remove all of the garden tools, hoses, tomato cages, watering cans, and other necessary items from the NVC house garage.

Thank you to the City of Green Bay Neighborhood and Inspection Divisions for their support of the project and for issuing the building permit that made the construction possible. I pray in gratitude to Bryce and his dad Kelly, in getting this project accomplished efficiently. I know it will benefit our community garden efforts well into the future.

Join Us

For more information about the Norbertine Volunteer Community, contact nvc@norbertines.org.

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Finding Friends in Faith and Service

As seen in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Abbey Magazine (page 16)

By Stephanie Birmingham and Kyle Cothern

The Norbertine Volunteer Community (NVC) is a full-time service and outreach program of the Norbertine Community of St. Norbert Abbey. Since its establishment in 2008, the NVC has seen nine groups of young adults enter the community, typically as complete strangers, only to become friends during their time living and working together. Steph and Kyle are two such friends and were members of the NVC between January and June 2011.

Steph and Kyle join forces in a memorable karaoke performance.
Steph and Kyle join forces in a memorable karaoke performance.

We came from different states—Steph from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and Kyle from Kokomo, Indiana—and backgrounds (even cheering for different NFL football teams!) to find a common experience in the NVC. That January we both joined during times of transition: Steph had just moved back home from working in the Washington, D.C., area, and Kyle was in the process of discerning religious life. Whether our meeting was circumstantial or through grace, we remain grateful to the Norbertines for their support of the NVC as an opportunity for young adults like us to come together and experience living in an intentional community grounded in faith (through shared meals and daily prayer at home) and service (by reaching out to the poor and marginalized in the local community).

As co-workers we volunteered at both Golden House, a domestic abuse shelter, and the Brown County Jail and Juvenile Detention Facility. Kyle was always drawing dinosaurs to entertain the little ones at Golden House and earned a reputation as “master dinosaur-draw-er”! We worked in the chaplain’s office at the jail to assist with the spiritual and emotional needs of incarcerated men, women, and juveniles.

2011 members of the NVC (left to right): Lindsay (Koeppel) Konrad, Steph, Kyle, now-Deacon Michael Brennan, O. Praem., Angie Knutson
2011 members of the NVC (left to right): Lindsay (Koeppel) Konrad, Steph, Kyle, now-Deacon Michael Brennan, O. Praem., Angie Knutson

Although we were only together at the NVC for six short months, this distinctive opportunity to volunteer at two of the same sites gave us ample time to bond through our successes and setbacks. It took a lot of energy to be present to the people we served—especially working with those who had committed unimaginable crimes, challenging our hearts and sense of mercy. Relying on each other, especially between shifts, helped us process our collective experiences. We became more confident in our own paths of personal growth—learning not only from each other, but also from our fellow community members.

Much of our work together was serious, but there were plenty of ways to have fun, too. Whether it was walks around the neighborhood, evening sing-alongs, or movie and popcorn nights, as a community we found ways to balance work and play.

Stephanie Birmingham and Kyle Cothern
Stephanie Birmingham and Kyle Cothern

Our time in the NVC has long since passed, yet our friendship continues to grow. Steph lives in Green Bay and Kyle lives in Chicago, but we stay in touch through the occasional FaceTime call, text, greeting card, or visit. We love to laugh over Steph’s hilarious journey as a first-time cat owner, and Kyle’s adventures as a big-city dweller from a small town. We recently connected over a story shared by a former inmate, who vividly remembers the wordplay games from our days volunteering at the jail and still appreciates those joyful moments so many years ago.

Physical distance might keep us apart, but our memories of the NVC keep us close, and we look forward to being lifelong friends.

Reflections on Norbertine Volunteer Community

To learn more about the NVC, a full-time service opportunity and outreach program of the Norbertine community, contact nvc@norbertines.org.

Norbertine Volunteer Community Welcomes New Members

NVC 2016-2017
Kimberly Tadlock (left) and Jaclyn Geyer

As seen in the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of Abbey Magazine (page 21)

This August, the Norbertine Volunteer Community (NVC) welcomed two members to its 2016-2017 program. These young adults are dedicating 11 months to serving the greater Green Bay community while living together in community.

Kimberly Tadlock (left) from Vancouver, Washington, graduated from Whitworth University (Spokane, Washington) in 2016 with a major in mathematics and a minor in philosophy. She is serving at St. Thomas More Catholic School as the campus ministry coordinator and at Ss. Peter and Paul as a faith formation volunteer.

“I have a passion for helping children get a quality education and firm foundation in the faith. I hope to gain a better knowledge of what my gifts and abilities are, and how they can be put to use in the service of others—the service of God.”

Jaclyn Geyer from Tacoma, Washington, is a 2015 graduate of Whitworth University. She is serving at St. Willebrord Parish as a pastoral ministry intern, where her duties include adult faith formation and office assistant responsibilities.

“I wanted to work in an environment where my skills would best be used to serve. As a history major, when I heard about the kind of work they needed it seemed like a great fit! I also hope to use this time to grow in my faith and discern where God is directing me in the future.”

To learn more about the NVC, a full-time service opportunity and outreach program of the Norbertine community, contact nvc@norbertines.org.

My Life in Community

By Angie Knutson

NVC 2010-2011

Angie Knutson
Angie Knutson

Living in community is very similar to living with your family. Some days you cannot imagine your life without them, and sometimes you wish they would leave you alone. Our tight family circle of five young adults trying to figure out where they are going next in life faces many times of challenges and of great joy in the community house. Many of our weekly habits are steady: we each cook one day a week, we rotate whose turn it is to go grocery shopping, we take turns leading morning and evening prayer, and we have a group meeting Sunday nights to discuss who needs the car when, and who may be coming over to join us for dinner.

What makes our essentially simple community life extraordinary are the moments in-between the second we wake up to the second we go to bed. We break off to our different worksites in the morning and return home in time for dinner in the evening. Sometimes we are all together in the living room playing a game or watching our favorite television shows, and sometimes we break off into our individual rooms for some privacy for a chance to wind down. We laugh, cry, and argue over some of the most trivial parts of living together; yet we never fail to offer each other unyielding support or help solve a problem we may have with our worksites.

I would be lying if I told you that life in community is perfect, and I would also be lying if I told you that it was the easiest living situation in which I was a part. However, I cannot imagine what else I would be doing, and how much I would be missing out on if I had not chosen to live with such amazing individuals.

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off To Work We Go

As many of you know, I work at Nicolet Elementary School, located about one block from the community house. The responsibilities I hold are two-fold. In the mornings I work in a first and second grade combination classroom helping out the teacher during their morning of literacy. I help with everything from fetching books and other supplies from the library, to copying worksheets, to working with a few of the students on an activity.

The afternoon requires most of my energy, and is consequently the most challenging part of my work at the school. I coordinate an after-school program that helps students who struggle with dyslexia. Freshmen and a couple sophomores from St. Norbert College come over and are paired up with a student and work with them one-on-one. The goal is to help improve the students’ reading skills by following a specific step-by-step manual and script each college student uses. Because I am the first person to manage this kind of program, there have been many mistakes I had to learn from and other skills I needed to fine-tune in order to make the program successful and hopefully pass this responsibility onto future Norbertine volunteers and college students.

My worksite is the one place I find the most joy, and constantly experience God’s presence. I know that service work is not always as gratifying as I initially expect, and that the change you are making is not apparent at first glance, but over the past several months, I see where teachers find the most rewarding part of their job. A couple of weeks ago, a student ran right up to me and exclaimed, “Ms. Knutson, I just spelled the word ‘difficult’! That was the word she read on the card, and I just spelled it just like that, like it was nothing!” He was so proud of himself that I couldn’t help mirroring his excitement.

Although some days are rough, especially when the students try my patience, walking into the classroom each morning by such greetings as “Good morning, Ms. Knutson!” or when one second grader told me right when I walked in that I could be Thing 1 and Thing 2 from Dr. Suess because I was skinny like them, it makes it all worth it. It amazes me that even kids who come from poverty and diverse backgrounds all know how to love, play, laugh, and find happiness that most adults who have everything do not always appreciate or know what it is to simply live every moment of every day as it is.

Finding Contentment in the Love of God

By Kyle Cothern

NVC 2010-2011

Kyle Cothern
Kyle Cothern

My name is Kyle Cothern, and I am from Kokomo, Indiana. I am grateful for the time I have enjoyed so far in my commitment with the Norbertine Volunteer Community. One of the major lessons I have been learning in my service experiences is the practice of reflective listening. As a chaplain intern at the Brown County Jail, I visit one-on-one with inmates in need of support and encouragement as they work to make positive changes in their lives. After my first week, I was surprised to discover just how much energy I had spent in active listening—an attentive and non-judgmental approach to receiving communication from others. As a result, I have paid a little more attention to my own personal needs for rest and contemplative prayer in order to sustain the public ministry of my volunteer work.

The vibrant atmosphere of intentional community is a true blessing, but it does have its challenges. I was intrigued recently by an idea presented in Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism, a book our volunteer community is reading together, about problems in Christian communities. Even if all of one’s current problems are solved today, it is inevitable that more problems will come along the next day, just as Jesus says to his disciples, “tomorrow will bring worries of its own” (Mt 6:34). Kelly asserts that the responsibility of the Christian is to deal with these problems while trying to connect them to one’s essential purpose: to learn to find contentment in the love of God. Such trust in Divine Providence is part of a lifelong journey of faith, and I am happy to be walking this road right now in such good company.

Read “Finding Friends in Faith and Service” by Kyle and fellow Norbertine Volunteer Community member Stephanie Birmingham in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Abbey Magazine (page 16).


By Lindsay (Koeppel) Konrad

NVC 2009-2010, 2010-2011

Lindsay (Koeppel) Konrad
Lindsay (Koeppel) Konrad

Throughout the past two years I have learned so much about myself from serving with the Norbertine Volunteer Community. Through working at the wildlife sanctuary I learned not only how to take care of animals and how to identify birds and mammals (among many other fun nature facts), but also how much I love working outdoors and sharing that love with others—an opportunity I would not have had without this program. This realization has completely changed what I want to be when I grow up. My love of nature has changed my prayer life as well. I find it really prayerful being outside—running, skiing, or just being.

Living in community has showed me how I deal with different situations. It has made me face emotions that at the time I would have rather not dealt with, but I had to deal with them because I knew that they were hurting not only me, but also the community as a whole. It has shown me places in my life in which I am doing ok, and it has shown me places that I can grow.

A Lesson in Humility

By (Fr.) Michael Brennan (O. Praem.)

NVC 2010-2011

Serving in the Norbertine Volunteer Community opened my eyes to the profound need that exists in Green Bay; this awareness leads me to prayer and opens doors for me to be of service in the community.

—(Fr.) Michael Brennan (O. Praem.)
(Fr.) Michael Brennan (O. Praem.)
(Fr.) Michael Brennan (O. Praem.)

My name is Mike Brennan. I am a 1999 graduate of St. Norbert College and this August I will begin my novitiate with the Norbertines. As I reflect on my last several months with the Norbertine Volunteer Community, the word that best summarizes my experience is “humility.” I have been humbled by the vast needs of the community; I have been humbled by the situations I have witnessed; I have been humbled by my inability to “fix” the situation; I have been humbled by an awareness that God is present in all situations, even those that seem to indicate that He is furthest away.

A few examples of what I have witnessed include a five-year-old boy trying to comfort his grieving mother at the Golden House. This child, who should not have a care in the world, was forced into a situation of caretaker. I have listened to a man who was recently released from prison describe the court battle he is having to maintain custody of his children. Another man described his struggles with his recently-diagnosed Aspergers Syndrome. I have played cards with homeless men and women at St. John’s while 40 other men and women fall asleep on the floor just as they do every night. I have assisted at Paul’s Pantry where one to two hundred people come for food each day. Each of these experiences reminds me what a simple, yet complex people we truly are. We are all hungry; we are physically hungry and we are spiritually hungry for the love of God and the love of neighbor. We are hungry to be recognized as important individuals and as worthwhile members of society.

Although I cannot “fix” most of the challenges that face our worldwide community, I can be present and offer a smile, offer a reassuring word, or simply just be present and let others know that I care and that they are not alone. Sometimes this feels appropriate and is quite fulfilling, however there are times that it feels severely inadequate. At these moments, I try to step back and ask God to extend His love and support to those who seem to hunger so desperately for His enduring love.

Seeing Christ in Everyone

By Stephanie Birmingham

NVC 2011-2012

Stephanie Birmingham
Stephanie Birmingham (left)

My name is Stephanie Birmingham and I am a 2009 graduate of St. Norbert College. Joining in January, I have been a member of the Norbertine Volunteer Community for approximately three months. During this short time I have a better idea of what it means to know and serve God, and I have witnessed the transformative power of God’s constant love.

In meeting one-on-one with inmates at the Brown County Jail, I have realized what it truly means to be present to another human being and what it means to listen with an open heart and mind. Whether it is the woman who is struggling with drug addiction and having to be separated from her children, or the young man who shares his challenging childhood, I am reminded that at our core we are fundamentally the same. It is in listening to an inmate’s story of heartache, alcohol and drug abuse, loneliness, poverty, emptiness, and pain, and hearing their desire to turn their lives over to God that I better understand God’s continual call for us to seek His love and mercy.

While there is little I can do to change the particular circumstances or situations of the men and women I meet, I can do my best to see Christ in them and meet them wherever they are on their spiritual journey. I can attempt to embrace the spiritual and emotional needs of those I encounter by remembering that we are all yearning for acceptance, compassion … someone to hear our small yet important voice. I am reminded of the human desire to be loved, and, above all, to have a connection with something greater than ourselves.

Read “Finding Friends in Faith and Service” by Steph and fellow Norbertine Volunteer Community member Kyle Cothern in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Abbey Magazine (page 16).