Volunteer Spotlight: Elyse

Meet Elyse Keefer, Women’s Services Intern

Elyse is a senior in the Social Work program at Mount Mercy University, and she’s been at CMC since January for her advanced placement internship in the Women’s Services program. Elyse says, “Coming to Catherine McAuley, I was really interested in learning more about transitional housing programs and learning more about the population that is served in this area through that. I was just really interested in Women’s Services as well, because I’ve always wanted to work with women.”

In her role at CMC, Elyse says, ”I have been doing a little bit of everything in Women’s Services and kind of just learning about what each staff member does, and what those positions look like.” Also working with residents, Elyse has been able to observe case management sessions and she’s participated in some of the therapeutic and skill-building groups.

She even started co-facilitating a Bible study group. “The residents kind of expressed that it was something they were interested in doing. I’m a double major in theology and religious studies, so I’ve been able to incorporate that part of my major into my work here as well, which has been really cool.”

Volunteering at CMC and working in the community has been a great way for Elyse to get to know people. “I’m definitely a people person, so having the opportunity to meet new people and get out of my comfort zone a bit has been awesome,” she says. She has enjoyed getting to know the residents and hearing more about their stories, perspectives, and experiences.

“I would say the most rewarding thing has just been getting to know the residents and it’s been very powerful. An experience that has come with a lot of humility because just hearing about the incredible stories of these women who have come so far, and who have each come from a different perspective but have all been through so much, seeing how strong and how dedicated they are to their own recovery, it’s just really inspiring.”

In connecting with residents, Elyse has appreciated the opportunity to empower women and lift them up. She says she’s been able to “get to know them and show there are people who care for you here, and there are resources that are available, and it’s our privilege to be working with you.”

Upon graduation this May, she’s exploring different opportunities through Mercy Volunteer Corps (a Sisters of Mercy organization with placements around the country, similar to AmeriCorps) and also exploring career paths with various service agencies in this area and closer to home in Illinois.

Reflecting on her educational journey, Elyse shares, “My time at school in Cedar Rapids has been really important to me, so being able to give back to this community has been really cool.” She also adds, “It’s kind of a lot of give and take, because throughout all of this, I’m learning so much and I’m gaining different skills and getting to experience so many things, but it’s also a great opportunity for me to give back and to be able to give of my time and give of my different things that I’ve been learning in school.”

Thank you, Elyse!

Volunteer Spotlight: Ron

Meet Ron Rohrssen, English & Citizenship Tutor

Ron has been volunteering at CMC for almost seven years. Now retired from the IT field, he continues to stay involved in running his own businesses and volunteering every week.

He was inspired to volunteer through work he was doing with his church, where he became interested in looking for ways to help refugees settle into the community. “I’d like to think that I help make it a little bit more inviting and friendly for people who are coming here with refugee status,” Ron says.

During his time as a tutor, Ron has worked with numerous students, both in learning English as a Second Language and in preparing for the U.S. citizenship exam. “I teach English classes, typically one-on-one, although sometimes it might be a husband and wife,” he says. “ I also teach citizenship.” So far, Ron has provided nearly 250 hours of tutoring at CMC!

While he finds teaching both study areas equally rewarding, he particularly acknowledges the complexities involved in learning U.S. history and civics that are essential for the citizenship exam. He says, “I find them both very rewarding. The thing about teaching citizenship is I realize how little the average citizen actually knows [citizenship exam answers].”

Like many tutors, Ron goes above and beyond providing learning support. Tutors and students exchange stories, personal experiences, and form real friendships. For Ron, he says, “It’s a chance to work with people who I feel like don’t have a lot of connections with American people. They come here and I think they’re in a lot of cases isolated because of language and cultural barriers. So, it’s a chance to interact with them and get to know them.”

When students run into obstacles in daily life, tutors help them find a way to navigate it. For instance, Ron has been tutoring a couple from Angola whom he has been working with closely since shortly after they arrived in the U.S. He was initially concerned when they shared that they didn’t have food, but the couple realized their message had been misunderstood, and their true desire was for African cuisine

Once Ron realized this, he explains, “I was able to find a Hy-Vee flyer and they quickly and excitedly pointed out several things that they were longing to have. They just didn’t know the words for them; they didn’t know how to ask how to find them. So, they were very excited to find out that those foods, those vegetables especially, were available here locally.”

Ron sees himself staying involved like he is, as he likes the balance between tutoring and his other commitments. He encourages others to “Just do it, give it a try! I think you would be surprised how much more you know than you think you do about teaching someone English.”

Thank you, Ron!

Volunteer Spotlight: Sue

Meet Sue Erbes, Online English Tutor

After Sue retired as Operations Manager at TrueNorth at the end of 2019, she wanted to volunteer. She came across a newspaper ad for CMC’s volunteer orientation and went to one of the sessions. Though she always worked in business, she holds a BA in English and Social Studies as well as a teaching certificate.

Sue began tutoring in 2020, originally meeting in-person with her student every week. “Her name is Richa, she is from India, and we have actually become good friends,” Sue shares. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that same year, tutoring transitioned online. Richa and Sue started meeting for virtual lessons and continue to do so today.

During the pandemic, Sue earned her TESOL certificate (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), a journey that began with volunteering to teach classes, and led to her becoming an ESL teacher at Kirkwood Community College. “Catherine McAuley did spark the inspiration. Once I started doing it, I really enjoyed it,” she says. “I really enjoyed visiting with the students and communicating, and trying to help them understand language, culture, and it was really gratifying.”

Sue cherishes the connections she makes while tutoring and finds the experience incredibly rewarding. She says, “It personally feels good and I also feel like I am making a little bit of a difference in somebody else’s life in helping them to learn the language. I don’t know any other languages so I have a great respect for people who come to the United States and learn a whole new language. It is very difficult.”

Patience, empathy, and understanding are qualities Sue says are necessary in tutors. “Understand that it does take time. Doing it once a week, you are packing a lot in one hour, but you are making a difference.”

Sue is especially appreciative of CMC Kids, the free, on-site childcare program that allows parents to study and attend appointments without interruption. “I think that is very, very important because that allows them at least an hour of their own time away from the other worries they have.”

“I think Catherine McAuley has done a great deal for the community,” she says. “Even some of the students I have at Kirkwood, most of them have had some kind of contact with Catherine McAuley, either through refugee services or [other programs] and they are just so happy. So happy. They talk so nicely about it.”

Welcoming newcomers to the country and city are priorities that Sue finds important for a stronger, more diverse community. Looking ahead, she sees herself continuing to volunteer and making friendships along the way.

Thank you, Sue!

Volunteer Spotlight: Rosemary

Meet Rosemary Biderman, English & Citizenship Tutor

Rosemary was a special education teacher for more than 20 years, and her volunteering experience goes back to her junior high years when she volunteered at nursing homes and assisting individuals with mental disabilities. While taking a class through Grant Wood 25 years ago, she was inspired to volunteer by a former director at CMC – and the rest is history!

Over the years, Rosemary has tutored in several different programs at the Catherine McAuley Center, providing more than 400 hours of service! She has tutored women pursuing their high school equivalency, adults studying English as a Second Language, and she has helped five students achieve their U.S. citizenship.

“It was very exciting to go to my first citizenship graduation. I thought that was pretty cool,” Rosemary says. She also loves the “aha moment” when students gain confidence. “I think you should praise a lot, but it has to be sincere.”

Rosemary admires the courage of English language learners, recognizing the challenges of navigating daily life in an unfamiliar language. She remarks, “I just think they are so brave…it is very intimidating and frightening when you don’t speak the language. And I just think they are so very, very brave to come here and do that every day.”

Reflecting on the impact of her time tutoring students, she shares, “I know it has impacted my family.”

Tutoring has played a powerful influence in many aspects of Rosemary’s life. Her youngest son similarly volunteered at CMC during his high school years. Now, she relishes the opportunity to recount her tutoring experiences to her granddaughters after each lesson. She adds, “even when I was teaching the students, I told them about the citizenship celebration and they had a lot of questions. So, I think it just spreads all over.”

As a long-time member of the CMC community, Rosemary says, “it means a lot” and she really values the relationships she’s made here.

Thank you, Rosemary, for the many years of service!

Volunteer Spotlight: Karen

Meet Karen Matthews, Office & Technology Volunteer

Karen started volunteering at CMC after transitioning from full-time work at Transamerica to part-time, with the goal of pursuing activities she wanted to do, like volunteering!

“It was always in my mind to find some volunteer opportunities, and I was familiar with the Catherine McAuley Center through a number of friends who are volunteer tutors. Everybody that tutors here loves it; it’s a go to environment for volunteering.”

While tutoring sounded fun, Karen thought her skills might be better put to use on the administrative side of things, particularly in providing technology support. Karen explains, “My work background has always been more on technology, but from the business user perspective. So, I have always prided myself in understanding what the business needs, then trying to translate that into the technological.”

When she contacted CMC to explore the possibility of contributing her tech skills, everyone was thrilled to hear that she had 10 years of experience using Salesforce, the program CMC relies on as its internal database. Now, Karen volunteers for three hours every week and describes it as liberating, putting her knowledge to use on behalf of CMC.

“For me, it’s fun, it’s not work. Although I work in Salesforce all day long at my job, to come here and do the same thing, it just feels freeing and fun. So that’s why, that’s my moment every day, I can come here and volunteer for three hours.”

One of the best parts of her volunteer role is brainstorming and working with Jon Harper, Technology Specialist. “I love it when he is getting up on the whiteboard, and once he’s got that dry erase marker in his hand, I know we are up to something good,” Karen says.

Interacting with CMC staff and being able to show them things that may make their jobs easier is rewarding for Karen; she likes to be able to provide high-quality, highly skilled talent at no cost. She understands that giving her time is valuable to the organization and to the staff. “The volunteer is a gift, and I think here they treat you that way always,” she says. “Everybody is so flexible, so patient.”

Karen plans to continue using her passion for data to serve CMC and hopes to be able to do more face-to-face training with staff members to help them use Salesforce more efficiently. To her, this is a “self-care” volunteer opportunity, helping an organization that she believes in.

Thank you, Karen!

Volunteer Spotlight: Xalen

To bring you closer to the heart of the Catherine McAuley Center, we’re excited to introduce you to some of the passionate individuals who are the driving force behind CMC’s impact in the community – our amazing volunteers! This Volunteer Appreciation Month, join us in honoring the caring community members who give their time and talents as CMC volunteers.

Meet Xalen Onyemelukue, Language Lab Volunteer 

Xalen is originally from Detroit where he studied electrical engineering. He moved to Cedar Rapids in 2021 for a job in transmission power systems engineering, working with power lines and transmitting electricity on a larger scale. In college, Xalen was the president of an organization that did some volunteer and outreach work, and he always had a passion for volunteerism. Once he got settled into his job, he had more free time and was looking for a volunteer opportunity where he could work with people.

Last August, Xalen discovered a volunteer role at the Catherine McAuley Center and he spent the day helping in CMC’s Community Garden. Soon after, he was taking a tour of the building to hear about more ways he could be of service!

As Xalen learned more about all of the programs CMC offers, he began exploring other volunteer opportunities, first in CMC Kids – CMC’s free onsite childcare program for clients – and then in Education’s Computer Language Lab.

Working in the Language Lab, Xalen discovered how much he likes working with  students who come in to learn English. Though it’s often a group setting, he loves finding opportunities to connect with students one-on-one.

“You really develop a connection, I would say with a lot of the students that come in regularly. It’s really rewarding to see a student that you are working with develop or progress. To see something click for them on what they are working on, I really love seeing that,” Xalen says.

One student in particular stands out. “I don’t know if he notices this himself, but I’ve really seen him improve in terms of what he does in English and how well he communicates even at a casual level when he walks in and we talk.”

When it comes to the most rewarding part of volunteering, Xalen says, “It’s an opportunity for me to be of service in the community of course. I very much value that. I value what CMC does as a whole so I like being a part of that even if just a small part.”

He plans to continue working with English students in the Language Lab and hopes to branch out and explore additional volunteer roles in other programs as they happen in the future. “I just want to continue to be as helpful as I can.”

Xalen encourages anyone who’s interested in volunteering at CMC to definitely do it and to “give everything a chance if you can.”

Thank you, Xalen!

Know Your Neighbors: Meet Sergio, Mumena, and Melissa

“We need so much to talk with other people so that we can know each other.”         – Mumena, CMC Client

At the Catherine McAuley Center (CMC), we believe in the power of neighbors coming together to create a stronger, more connected and inclusive community. After all, it’s the unwavering support of caring neighbors, volunteers, and partners like YOU who make it possible for CMC to provide free educational and supportive services to nearly 900 individuals each year!

Our neighbors are the heart and soul of CMC’s mission – refugees, immigrants, adult learners, and women healing from trauma. They are your neighbors right here in Iowa, and we invite you to get to know them better, to hear their stories, and to support the programs that make a difference in their lives.

As you watch the videos below and get to know Sergio, Mumena, and Melissa, you’ll find that their dreams and aspirations are not so different from your own.

Beyond Housing – The Full Spectrum of Women’s Services Programs: Wynona’s Recovery

Life took a dark turn for Wynona when her two children grew up and moved out a few years back. To fill the void and escape unaddressed trauma from her past, Wynona ended up becoming dependent on drugs, grew apart from her boys, and lost both her job and her home. That’s what brought her to the Catherine McAuley Center in early 2022. 

“Before I got here, there was still a lot of helplessness and hopelessness,” she remembers. “Quite a bit of despair.” But Wynona saw where the sorrow was leading and took the initiative to change course. She reached out to the Catherine McAuley Center herself, and though there wasn’t an immediate opening available, she persisted in calling for weeks on end till there was.

Now, thanks to hard work, self-discipline, and assistance from both staff and other CMC Women’s Services residents, Wynona feels happier, healthier, and more energetic than she has in years.

“I came to CMC to try to establish independence again,” says Wynona. “Today I’m 16-months in recovery time.” Wynona now works two jobs and, in her free time, volunteers at both the Catherine McAuley Center and at CRUSH of Iowa community recovery center.

We asked her what she wishes more women in crisis knew about CMC. “They don’t visualize it out there as what it really is here. It’s visualized quite a bit as just a shelter here. And that is not at all what it is,” she explains. “They offered classes for me to help with mindfulness. Encouraged my recovery. Made sure I met my needs with my doctor—my mental health, my physical health. And then gave me some leeway to get myself on a financial plan.” 

“That’s really what brought me here more than anything,” she continues, “To help me get my life back together. Or get it in a different space than what it was. I had a plan. But I kept kind of running from the plan because I didn’t have the proper stability, the proper resources, the proper support that I really needed. So, coming here really helped with that. They’re there to help you if you need extra assistance. They’re there if things happen and there’s emergencies … But the compassion that comes from staff understanding—they care about us, too. We care about them. Like it’s a very mutual, family-like setting.”

Post Author: Shawn Hammond

Women find a safe, comforting place to call home at the Center

While ideas of the comforts of home can change from person to person and culture to culture, most want to feel the same feelings when going home. In the words of feminist and author, Maya Angelou, “Home is a refuge not only from the world but a refuge from my worries, my troubles, my concerns.”

Through the support of community members, volunteers, and partners, such a welcoming place has been made more possible for women like Desiree, a client of the Catherine McAuley Center’s Supportive and Transitional Housing programs.

“Your safety, your security—it’s everything! The world is unsafe, and it should be safe at home,” Desiree explains.

The Catherine McAuley Center has a history of supporting those who face significant barriers to maintaining safe and stable housing through its Women’s Services programs.

Supportive Housing, added to CMC’s programming in February of 2020 (and expanded by an additional housing unit in 2021), offers women who have passed through the Transitional Housing Program a next step in a home environment. One with more independence that still grants access to the CMC supports residents have been able to lean on in the past. Most importantly, the program is lease-based, allowing women to build positive rental history before pursuing public housing.

Like many trauma survivors, home has not always been a safe place for Desiree. Someone who values family and connection, Desiree lives with other survivors who have also struggled with substance abuse, codependent relationships, and long-standing trauma. Residents at CMC maintain a communal home with others and continue strengthening group and individual decision-making skills. “Making my home at CMC has been interesting. I’ve been mindful and respectful of other residents’ routines, and we do very well with respecting each other. I love the staff, and their willingness to be human and share their struggles. It makes me feel closer to them,” Desiree explained.

When describing her home at CMC, Desiree says, “I’m a girly girl at home! I love my house to smell good. I have my area rugs, my photos of family to look at on my walls, and I love my Christmas lights and my home to look festive around the holidays.”

Community supporters help residents feel comfort at home 
Thanks to a recent upgrade to CMC’s housing spaces, women who find safety and support through Women’s Services can feel even more at home with items that bring comfort and hope. To spruce up the resident bedrooms and shared living spaces in the Center’s housing programs, Central Furniture Rescue and volunteers from Xavier High School moved in a variety of upgraded furnishings and decor – along with brand new mattresses and bedding generously donated by the Lions Club!

What inspired these efforts?
Executive Director of Central Furniture Rescue (CFR), Susan Johnston, says, “We live in an amazing community. Everyone wants to help, they just don’t know how. CFR becomes a conduit between people, their items and people who have a need. When touring the [transitional housing program for women] at Catherine McAuley, we saw a need to help warm up the rooms with headboards, rugs, pillows, wall art, and other items.”

When a new resident arrives, her bedroom is furnished with necessities like a bed, table and chairs, and a desk, along with bedding and a welcome basket stocked with personal care products. With a group of volunteers helping to move in furnishings, it was also a good time to replace mattresses and stock up on new bedding, and the Lions Club helped make it happen with a donation of $1,000! “The Cedar Rapids Lions are pleased to support the work of the Catherine MacCauley Center. We share a common goal in supporting the welfare of individuals in need,” said Mary Doyle.

Women are able to decorate their bedrooms to their own preference and comfort, and now, CMC can offer more of the elements that help make a space feel extra cozy! “We want help to make the room ‘home’ for the person staying there. We believe that having a safe comfortable home helps with mental and emotional health,” Susan explains.

Desiree is nearly 2 years into recovery and finds the structures provided at CMC to be a needed balance to her new life. “I came here 6 months sober, but I wanted to do baby steps. I had to have more freedom, but needed structure.” Committed to her sobriety, she finds the curfew, the checking in, and the supportive safety to be key elements in maintaining her health and her journey towards financial independence.

Through Supportive housing, residents gain an understanding of their rights and responsibilities as renters through monthly rental payments they are required to pay while rebuilding (or building) their credit history. “I’m focusing on my financial wellness; I’ve been able to save money and work on myself,” she says. “This place gave me the freedom to live my life sober.”

At the Catherine McAuley Center, women find more than just housing, they find a safe place to call ‘home’ and the support of a community that inspires hope.

Staff Picks: Learn more about refugees

Would you like to learn more about what refugees experience?  Are you looking for materials to help others understand why millions around the globe have been forced to flee their homes?  Please check out this list of educational and informational resources compiled from CMC staff.



First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung

God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation by Joseph Sebarenzi with Laura Ann Mullane

*Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

*Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Learning America: One Woman’s Fight for Educational Justice for Refugee Children by Luma Mufleh

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community by Mary Pipher & Susan Cohen

They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, and Benjamin Ajak with Judy A. Bernstein

*Young adult novels



First They Killed My Father (2017)  (Available to stream on Netflix)

Flee (2021) (Available to stream on Hulu)


Short videos:

Who is a Refugee?

A Refugee’s Journey

Temple by Thao and the Get Down Stay Down (music video)
You can also watch an interview with the artist about this song here.

Don’t feel sorry for refugees — believe in them, Luma Mufleh

What it’s like to be a parent in a war zone, Aala El-Khani

World Refugee Day Virtual Panel: New Beginnings


Other Resources:

Finding Home (app for iPhones) This app turns your phone into a refugee’s phone, simulating the experience of a refugee as they flee from their home.

“The ungrateful refugee: We have no debt to repay” by Dina Nayeri