Bernie Prokop and Colleen Eben-Prokop (Sofia DeMartino photo)
Bernie Prokop had a difficult start in life. The youngest of four boys, Bernie lost his mother when she died in childbirth.
“In those days, single men didn’t take care of their children. My father took the four of us to the same orphanage where my mother and her siblings had been.”
When they reached acceptance age, the brothers moved one by one from the orphanage in western Iowa to Boys Town in Omaha.
“I was in Boys Town from 1954 to 1962. There were children from all over the world. A Korean boy who lost his parents to the war and his legs to frostbite; a boy who escaped from Poland – they made a film about his family’s escape. What they did for us…they had a clothing store, a bowling alley, a pool hall, we had all sports, and the trade school was recognized as the best trade school in the Midwest.”
One of Bernie’s brothers kept the trade throughout his life and worked as a tailor in Kansas City.
“He also did wire art – he was a fantastic artist. We hadn’t spoken to each other when he died… I received his belongings and found a woman on his cell phone named Edna. She told me that he prayed for me at the Bible study three days a week. That was the brother I didn’t talk to – the brother I hated. He prayed for me three times a week.”
When Bernie was discharged from the Navy in 1967, he hitchhiked across the country as a self-confessed hippie. Substance abuse problems followed, and eventually he ended up in a Des Moines animal shelter, where he met Willis Dady – namesake of the Cedar Rapids men’s shelter.
“When I was stranded in Des Moines, I thought well — I think I should get off the streets and help people because of all the help that’s been given to me. I had many people who helped me. I thought it was time to give back to the community, so I became a community person.”
After that mission, Bernie joined the Catholic Worker House—first in the soup kitchen, then on a farm in Williamsburg.
“They needed help in Cedar Rapids in 1985, so I came here. We put names in my hat to decide what to call a new facility – one of the names we put in there was Willis Dady. I drew his name.”
One night in February 1986, “a woman came to the door to volunteer.”
That woman was Colleen, and she later became Bernie’s wife. Like Bernie, she has dedicated her life to helping others.
Colleen grew up on a farm near Prairieburg, Iowa.
“We had enough to eat, but there were seven children and we were poor. My father worked in two different factories and we worked on the farm to pay the rent. I unloaded the feed wagon for my father. Growing up in a very Catholic environment, we were taught that your job is to live the gospel every day. Do for other people.”
Colleen came to Cedar Rapids for a corporate job, but those plans were put on hold when she was stopped by a drunk driver.
“I worked two jobs to pay medical bills and experienced manic episodes that made it very difficult. I ended up in a monastery until the Immaculate Conception and then lost my job. From the hospital to the homeless to the unemployed. When I got to Madge Phillips, I could empathize with the women there – even though their stories were all different, I understood their struggles.”
When a member of a support group suggested that volunteering could help Colleen find purpose with the flexibility to meet her medical challenges, she became a YMCA volunteer. Colleen later worked at the Madge Phillips Center, Partnership for Safe Families and the Jane Boyd Community House.
“I spent 20 years in reception with Jane Boyd. One day a woman working at the pharmacy counter said, ‘Are you Miss Colleen? You don’t know how much you mean to me. You were the first person I saw each day and you set the tone for the day.’ It wasn’t that she remembered me that brought tears to my eyes – it was that I had done my job. I wanted every kid to feel that way.”
Throughout her career in community service, Colleen continued to struggle with mental health and medical issues.
“In the ’70s, it was just ‘this is your brain chemistry!’ Because of my work, I had access to new training and information that helped me understand my own mental health issues. (As a social services organization) It’s so important to take care of your employees – social work has a huge impact on your mental and physical health, and many key people in this field lost their jobs when their health collapsed. It became very difficult for me to see social work as a business.”
Bernie and Colleen continue to work for the good of others; Bernie as a driver for the Neighborhood Transportation Service at Horizons and Colleen as a child care provider. Together they have worked in seemingly every aspect of the world of social services; Food insecurity, childcare, transportation, domestic violence, substance abuse, working with immigrants and refugees, the homeless and more.
What do you like best about Bernie?
“He’s such a philosopher. I love his sense of humor, he was what I romanticized in high school – a true hippie! When I met him he was wearing tread sandals and rainbow suspenders, with hair down to his waist.”
Bernie – what do you like best about Colleen?
“Colleen keeps me sane. She keeps my feet on the ground!”
Colleen smiles and pauses for a moment.
“It’s been a wonderful life and there’s still so much more to do.”
Sofia DeMartino is a member of the editorial board of the Gazette. Comments: [email protected]