116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Bernie Prokop had a rough start in life. The youngest of four boys, Bernie lost his mother when she passed away in childbirth.
“Single men did not take care of their children in those days. My father put the four of us in the same orphanage where my mother and her siblings had been.”
One by one as they reached the age of admission, the brothers transitioned from the western Iowa orphanage to Boys Town in Omaha.
“I was at Boys Town from 1954 until 1962. There were kids there from all over the world. A Korean boy who lost his parents in the war and his legs to frostbite; a boy who escaped Poland — they made a movie about his family’s escape. What they did for us … they had a clothing store, a bowling alley, a pool hall, we had all the athletic sports and the trade school was recognized as the best trade school in the Midwest.”
One of Bernie’s brothers maintained the trade he learned through his entire life, working as a tailor in Kansas City.
“He also did wire art — he was a fantastic artist. When he died, we hadn’t been speaking … I received his possessions and found a woman in his cellphone named Edna. She told me that he prayed for me at bible study three days a week. This was the brother I didn’t speak to — the brother I hated. He was praying for me three times a week.”
When Bernie was discharged from the Navy in 1967, he hitchhiked across the country as a self-professed hippie. Substance abuse issues followed, and eventually he landed at a shelter in Des Moines where he became acquainted with Willis Dady — namesake of the Cedar Rapids men’s shelter.
“When I got stranded in Des Moines, I thought well — I guess I’m supposed to get off the road and help people, because of all the help that was given to me. I had a lot of people help me. I thought it was time to give back to the community, that’s why I became a community person.”
Following this mission, Bernie joined the Catholic Worker House — first in the soup kitchen, then at 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 of 1986 — a woman came to the door to volunteer.”
That woman was Colleen, and she would later become Bernie’s wife. Like Bernie, she has dedicated her life to doing for others.
Colleen grew up on a farm outside Prairieburg, Iowa.
“We had enough to eat, but there were seven children and we were poor. My dad worked two different factory jobs, and we did farm work to pay rent. I unloaded the feed truck for my dad. I was raised in a very Catholic environment, we were taught that your job is to live the gospel every day. To do for other people.”
Colleen came to Cedar Rapids for a corporate job, but those plans were halted when she was rear-ended by a drunken driver.
“I was working two jobs to pay for medical bills, and experiencing manic episodes that made it very difficult. I ended up living in a convent by Immaculate Conception, then lost my job. From hospital to homeless to unemployed. By the time I got to Madge Phillips, I could empathize with the women there — even though all of their stories were different, I understood their struggles.”
When a support group member suggested volunteering may help Colleen to find purpose with the flexibility to accommodate her medical challenges, she became a volunteer at the YMCA. Colleen later took on work at the Madge Phillips Center, with Partnership for Safe Families, and the Jane Boyd Community House.
“I spent 20 years at Jane Boyd at the front desk. One day, a woman working at the pharmacy counter said ‘Are you Miss Colleen? You don’t know how much you meant to me. You were the first person I saw every day and you set the tone for the day.’ It wasn’t that she remembered me that had me in tears — it was that I had done my job. I wanted every child to feel that way.”
Throughout her career in social services, Colleen continued to struggle with mental health and medical issues.
“In the 70s, it was just ‘that’s your brain chemistry!’ Because of my work, I had access to new training and information that helped me understand my own mental health challenges. (As a social services organization) It is so important to take care of your people — social work has a big impact on your mental and physical health, and a lot of key people in the field have lost work when their health crumbled. It became very difficult for me to see social work run as a business.”
Bernie and Colleen continue to work for the good of others; Bernie as a driver for Neighborhood Transportation Service at Horizons, and Colleen as provider of child respite care. Between them, they have worked in what seems like every aspect of the social services world; food insecurity, child care, transportation, domestic violence, substance abuse, working with immigrant and refugee populations, those who are unhoused, and more.
What is your favorite thing about Bernie?
“He is such a philosopher. I love his sense of humor, he was what I romanticized in high school — a real hippie! He had tire tread sandals and rainbow suspenders when I met him, with hair to his waist.”
Bernie — what’s your favorite thing 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 so much more to go.”
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org