It was late 2011. Kelsey Kotecki, a senior at Muskego High School and parish member at St. Mary, Hales Corners, wasn’t looking for activities to keep her busy. The president of her schools’ Future Business Leaders of America, she was also a member of DECA, an organization that develops students’ marketing skills, and the math, music and German honor societies.
Nevertheless, Kelsey was intent on achieving her Girl Scout Gold Award. The prestigious award is the program’s highest honor and requires, among other things, that an applicant organize and execute a “Take Action” project that benefits the community.
Kotecki chose to take over a fledgling project begun at her parish the year before – a vegetable garden at the Community at Xavier Knoll in Franklin.
“My family really helped me come up with it. We realized that it hadn’t been started at all, no one had taken it over,” said Kelsey. “So I decided I would talk to the Xaverian Fathers and see if they wanted me to do anything with it.”
Xaverian Fr. Dominic Caldognetto had been hoping to get the garden started.
“I just don’t have the time or the energy,” he said. “She took it over with the intent of seeing this project continuing into the future.”
It would prove to be no small undertaking.
“It’s a pretty big garden, 60 feet by 16 feet. It was a big job. I think it’s a tribute to her willingness to give it a try. I’m pretty proud of her being able to make it a successful project,” said her father, Tom Kotecki.
Kelsey began preparing in March.
“I had to measure the area, map out what I had to do, make a list of when everything should be done by, figure out how to get expenses paid – and then I actually had to start the project,” she said.
She knew she couldn’t do it alone.
“I looked to my parish. I talked at all the Masses, told them what I was doing and asked if they could help out financially or by volunteering,” she said. “The turnout was incredible. I couldn’t have asked for a better turnout. They were so generous.”
She estimated that the costs of starting and maintaining the garden would be $400. After appealing at her parish Masses one weekend in late May, she received $2,200.
“One of the parishioners was very generous and paid for basically all of the (cost of the) rototiller,” she said. “I set up a volunteer program and we work every Tuesday night for two hours; there are parishioners that come every week or whenever they can.”
“I want to commend Kelsey for doing this,” said Fr. Dominic. “They tried to get some young people involved and Kelsey, even being as young as she is, got a beautiful response from the parish. She is working to make them more sensitive to the needs of the poor.”
A portion of the garden’s harvest will be taken to food pantries.
For Kotecki, it was only natural to choose a faith-related project for her Gold Award.
“My family has always been really involved in the parish,” she said. “My grandpa was on the Xaverian board and he left a big impact on us to always look to our faith, so with him our family has been involved with the Xaverians for many years.”
She said the assistance of her family and parish community was invaluable.
“My mom and dad were a huge help. They really pushed me through it and the youth group of St. Mary also helped a lot. And my grandma (Gladys Hintz of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Milwaukee) has really been my advisor on the project.”
“Her mother and I are very proud of her,” said Tom Kotecki. “I think it’s a great thing as far as what she did getting people in our church involved. They were really enthusiastic because they like to see that young people help out and do these kinds of projects.”
Kotecki has just begun her first semester at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, where she will major in biology with a concentration in aquatic sciences. She hopes to go to graduate school in order to study marine biology.
Wherever life takes her, this project has helped her to realize that her greatest ally is her faith.
“My faith helped me get through everything,” she said. “There were times when it was really hard to accomplish everything and I just had to keep looking up and keep going.”