ELM GROVE — Holding down two part-time jobs with two energetic groups of teens and young adults keeps Ellen Koranda moving. Good thing she’s a runner.
Koranda serves as associate director of youth ministry for St. Joseph Parish in Wauwatosa and St. Mary Visitation Parish in Elm Grove. She’s also an assistant track and cross country coach at Marquette University.
Running brought Koranda to St. Joseph and St. Mary. Two years ago, while a graduate student in Christian doctrine at Marquette, she won the women’s division of the 5K run at the parishes’ Catch the Spirit Family Fun Event.
“I was very attracted to the parish and thought (Catch the Spirit) was a fun thing,” Koranda said.
Last spring as graduation loomed, Koranda began job-hunting in youth ministry “and put it together that this position was at the same parish where I had run.”
Not only did Koranda land the job, she also became race director of the 5K, which is scheduled for June 12.
The event features food, games and entertainment from 6-11 p.m. and is a fund-raiser for The ATTIC (Area Teens Together In Christ) at St. Mary, where the two parishes’ youth activities are based.
“It’s a pretty unique combination of loves, but certainly the fun run is a really cool way to help a parish I’m fond of and support a youth ministry program I really believe in,” said Koranda.
St. Joseph and St. Mary, about two miles apart, have had a joint youth program for several years, serving some 800 kids in grades 6-12. Activities are available year-round, including drop-in time at The ATTIC, retreats, a mission trip and other community service projects, large- and small-group discussion circles, confirmation preparation and social events.
Koranda said she was interested in youth ministry long before she came to Marquette. Growing up in a small town in Minnesota, Koranda said her own parish did not emphasize teen formation.
“I felt like I was not being fed,” she explained. “I think a lot of people are afraid to challenge young people, and we who love Catholicism need to do that.”
Mary Kruse, co-chair of Catch the Spirit and also a parent of a teenager in the parish, called Koranda “a terrific young woman, an example of faith and action.”
While it may seem that at 24, Koranda’s age would give her an edge in working with teenagers, she doesn’t see it that way.
“I’ve seen a lot of youth ministers twice my age who are a lot better at it than I am,” she said. “I think what kids are attracted to are honesty, hard work, care and compassion.”
Koranda was a national-caliber runner at the Division III St. Mary University in Winona, Minn., and earned a degree in theology before coming to Marquette to coach and work on her master’s. She lives in Milwaukee and is a member of St. Joseph.
“Ellen coaches some athletes in running the physical race and others in the spiritual race,” said Matt Bruce, director of youth ministry. “God brought Ellen here for a reason. She’s fantastic.”
The addition of the associate director position held by Koranda shows the level of commitment St. Joseph and St. Mary have for youth formation, said Bruce, whose job is full-time. The program has a high profile with an extensive Web site <www.sjsmym.org> featuring online newsletters for high school and middle school students. Recently, a second Web site, <www.ypray.org>, was added.
In what Bruce calls “meeting students where they’re at,” the program also has an active presence on Facebook.
Koranda said teenagers make religious formation a priority in their busy lives if the emphasis is on service rather than obligation.
“Instilling a sense of mission is a big part of what we do,” she explained. “They shouldn’t just let their faith sit, it’s something they have to do something with.”
In other words, be involved for the long run.