This rosary procession at Divine Mercy School is one of many ways schools in the archdiocese of have individualized their Catholic Schools Walk events over the past three years. (Photo by David Bernacchi)

For most of its 11-year history, the Catholic Schools Walk functioned as not just a fundraiser but a ‘fun’ raiser.

A de facto back-to-school kick-off celebration, the day-long event formerly known as the Soles for Catholic Education Walk welcomed thousands of educators, students and supporters of Catholic education to the campus of Mount Mary University for a brisk autumn stroll along the Menomonee River Parkway. In the process, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised each year by individual school teams for their classrooms.

Due to the pandemic, the event was obliged to pivot to a decentralized model in 2020, whereby each school would host its own local walk. The result? The funds raised by participating schools nearly doubled from the previous year, from approximately $250,000 to $462,000.

Almost four years later, the Catholic Schools Walk has kept the “fun” and maximized the “funds.” Around 70 teams raised more than $753,000 for their schools in 2022.

Logistically, the success of this new model makes a lot of sense, said Paige Rohr, Associate Director of Catholic Schools Development for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. All sponsorship money now goes back to the schools in the form of matching gifts instead of underwriting the cost of a large in-person event, and schools themselves are able to maximize their fundraising dollars by hosting a smaller local walk.

“We have schools that span a pretty far distance and being able to have a walk at their local school is more convenient. There’s higher participation,” Rohr said. The archdiocese encompasses 102 schools in 10 counties, and Rohr noted that sometimes schools would use fundraising dollars to pay for bus transportation to Mount Mary on the day of the event. “It’s financially easier for the schools to keep it at the local level, and there’s more participation because there’s less travel involved.”

Amy Nelson, Principal at St. John the Baptist School in Plymouth, said that in the early years of the walk their school made the effort to have a cohort represent the school at the central event in Milwaukee. But with the drive from Plymouth being longer than an hour by car, “we get much more participation if we hold the Catholic Schools Walk locally,” said Nelson.

“We use (the archdiocesan) walk platform to drive interest in the (local) walk and to collect online donations as well as to market the value of a Catholic education,” she said. “By holding it on our campus, not only do we have great engagement, but we also have seen a major increase in donations.”

The same is true of Waukesha Catholic School System, which has been an enthusiastic participant in the Schools Walk since its inception. “There was just something so heartwarming and spectacular to see hundreds of Catholic school children from throughout our archdiocese come together in unity to walk and celebrate Catholic education,” said Lisa Kovaleski, Principal at Waukesha Catholic.

However, though many families participated in the fundraising aspect of the walk, “it was a bit challenging to encourage our families to attend the actual walk,” noted Lidia Crivello, Development Director at Waukesha Catholic. “Many of our families found it difficult to schedule the walk around soccer and other sports activities that take place on Saturday mornings.”

Participating schools are also able to galvanize their donor base by emphasizing their own individual needs. Holding the walk locally keeps the local school in the forefront. “By having it on our campus, it allows us to better showcase the ‘wows’ of our school on the day and evening of the walk,” said Nelson.

Last year, St. Gabriel in Hubertus hosted a “glow” walk on parish grounds after the Saturday vigil Mass, followed by hamburgers and hot dogs. St. Josaphat Parish School in Milwaukee combined their walk, which raised funds for much-needed new desks, with a live Rosary in Kosciuszko Park. St. Anthony on the Lake in Pewaukee raised funds for new books by hosting a Story Walk, and St. Thomas Aquinas Academy went all out with a “color walk.”

“We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of school families participating in the walk since holding the walks at Waukesha Catholic,” said Crivello. “For certain, the location and close proximity to home make it a lot easier for our school families to attend.” From 2019 to 2020, Waukesha Catholic saw a 15-percent increase in their fundraising. Crivello described the walk, which serves as the school system’s only fall fundraiser, as “crucial” to serving the needs of their students.

The Catholic Schools Walk still “officially” takes place on the third Saturday in October, the same as it always has. This year, that date is Oct. 21. Schools are encouraged to schedule their walk at a date that is most convenient for them.

Additionally, the community feel between the participating schools throughout the archdiocese isn’t totally lost simply because of the new model. Not only are all branding and marketing materials streamlined, but Rohr and her team update social media with photos of local walks and stories that highlight the specific impact donors’ gifts are able to have on each school.

“We can (virtually) showcase what the walk is all about and build on that camaraderie,” she said.