For Michael Nowakowski, charity through the Knights of Columbus runs in the family.
His grandfather was a founding member of the group at the St. Bruno parish in Chicago and served as that council's second Grand Knight. Nowakowski's father was the group's financial secretary for about 20 years.
“My dad passed away when I was 12 and even though he was gone, the Knights took care of us," he said. "Our family was invited to parties and other events as guests until I was 18.”
Flash forward to 12 years ago when a neighbor brought him into the council that he now leads as the Grand Knight for the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a men's fraternal benefit and community service organization based out of St. Jude Catholic Church.
His commitment now requires 25 to 30 hours a month just to perform regular duties that include preparing and leading monthly general membership and leadership meetings. With numerous events planned in the coming months, Nowakowski, 52, estimates he'll be putting in more than 100 hours each month through the spring.
Those events are often held to benefit Catholic-based charities and individuals. However, many programs – Nowakowski's group did 34 last year – benefit the community at large. For example, the Mental Health Drive (run as a large Tootsie Roll sale) directs all money to local organizations that help mentally challenged people regardless of religious beliefs or affiliations.
That one event represents about 700 volunteer hours from the group's nearly 300 members. Those hours, and countless others, are under the leadership of the Grand Knight.
Additionally, most costs associated with the organization are paid for by the membership through dues and other personal contributions and purchases. Unlike many other charities that must pay for administrative and other operating expenses with donations, all money collected for an event goes to the purpose designated at that event.
Even with personal costs and lots of volunteer hours going to good causes, Nowakowski stays humble.
“I'm embarrassed when people come up and say that you've been successful as a leader, because I just wave the gavel,” Nowakowski said. “The role of the Grand Knight is to control (a) structured environment. It's because of the entire group that we succeed. What did I do? I just did my little portion and then we move along.”
As is often the case, it's not just one organization that benefits from his and others' service. Among other efforts, his wife, Diane, has joined him in serving as chaperone for numerous marching band events in previous years at Lincoln-Way Central High School when his son was a student and marching band member. They also ran the local Siam Book program for two and half years (the Siam Book is sold as a fundraiser by members of area high school marching bands and includes a card that is good for discounts at – and donated by – local businesses).
And when it came time to handle tens of thousands of Tootsie Rolls and the money that it brought in, his entire family along with numerous other members' wives stepped in to help.
Nowakowski is also a member of the decoration committee at church (think numerous trees at Christmastime and dozens of tulips at Easter being two of the many looks they give the building) as well as being part of the group that assists the priest with serving communion every Sunday. He says he's on hiatus from the second one while being Grand Knight, a two-year commitment.
Why the dedication to so many hours and so much effort?
“I guess everyone wants to feel a sense of accomplishment," Nowakowski said. "You strive to be the best at work, (but it also) feels good to help with the Knights, or the church. You go home feeling that you were a part of something, you accomplished something. I like that feeling.”
Editor's note: John Petrosky is a member of the Knights of Columbus in Nowakowski's council.