ALLOUEZ — When driving into the Town of Freedom, Riley Garbe is struck by the image of the St. Nicholas Church steeple. In his eyes, the steeple appears to be “watching over the whole town.” St. Nicholas will forever be a special place for Garbe. He found comfort in the church following years of turmoil in his life.
Garbe was born in Green Bay. His parents separated when he was very young.
“I don’t have any recollection of them together,” he said. “I bounced around a lot between them. My mom moved around a lot. Both of my parents struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. My mom went to prison. My dad was in jail. I lived in two different shelters as a kid and attended many different schools.”
Following her time in prison, his mother got her life on track. Garbe, who was struggling in school and getting in trouble with teachers, decided to leave his friends in Green Bay and move to Freedom to live with his mother and stepfather when he was in seventh grade.
When he first arrived in Freedom, he asked his mother if they could join St. Nicholas Parish. She agreed and he would go on to receive the sacraments. Garbe was baptized as a baby at St. Jude Church in Green Bay, but the family never attended Mass.
“It was a situation where ‘we are getting you baptized because otherwise Grandma is going to be upset,’” he explained.
Fr. Dave Hoffman, pastor at St. Nicholas at the time, served as a mentor.
“A lot of times I would go to Mass by myself,” said Garbe. “He took notice. ‘Who is this young high school kid here by himself?’ He taught me things about love, leadership and responsibility.”
He also found a sense of belonging in athletics. Garbe participated in many different sports during his youth and was a member of the football and track and field teams in high school.
“Unfortunately, most people don’t make it out of my situation,” he said. “What was it that helped me overcome the challenges? Obviously there was the church and God. There were saints praying for me that I didn’t even know about. Sports provided a huge escape. I loved going to the park with friends to play football, basketball and baseball and I really liked being part of a team.”
Garbe enrolled at UW-Green Bay following graduation from Freedom High School in 2013. He wanted to compete in athletics in college, but UWGB does not have football or track and field teams. He decided to try out for the cross country team. He made the squad as a walk-on and earned a scholarship for his sophomore, junior and senior years. Garbe is an English education major. He wants to be a teacher in Green Bay. Next fall, he will do his student teaching in Mexico. He describes his Spanish-speaking skills as “good,” but wants to improve.
“I want to learn Spanish and get that immersion experience and come back here,” he said.
Garbe is involved in campus ministry at the university. A mission trip to Chicago’s Su Casa shelter was both rewarding and cause for reflection, he said.
“We worked with immigrant mothers who are victims of domestic violence,” he said. “The shelter was started by Dorothy Day. Going into the inner city, to be with people who are struggling, that’s what I love to do. That’s where I want to be.
“What I had to deal with as a child is sort of a gift in disguise,” he continued. “I do notice my peers working in afterschool programs and serving in the inner city are sometimes nervous. That’s understandable. For me, it feels like home. I’m with my brothers and sisters. I can identify with them. I’m thankful that I had the church, otherwise I would probably be bitter and angry about my past.”
Garbe credits the example of Pope Francis and the many priests who have guided him including Fr. Hoffman, Fr. Dan Felton and Fr. Daniel Schuster.
“They really taught me a lot about love, mercy, forgiveness and understanding,” he said. “I’ve never abandoned my family. I’ve never given up on my parents or my brothers. I’ve always been there for them.”
Garbe lived his first two years on campus. He moved in with his father in Green Bay his junior year, but the environment was difficult. Fr. Ryan Starks suggested that he move to the young adult house on the St. Jude Church property, where he now resides.
“I’ve come full circle returning to St. Jude,” he said. “We have formation nights at the house. Fr. Michael (Thiel) has continued adoration nights (started by Fr. Starks) the second Thursday of the month at Annunciation Church. They are beautiful nights with music, adoration, confession and Gospel reflection. Three priests are there — Fr. Michael, (Norbertine) Fr. Brad (Vanden Branden) and Fr. Mark (Vander Steeg).”
Garbe shares the story of his family struggles in hopes of inspiring young people facing similar challenges. He speaks at Green Bay schools, coaches the running club at Howe Elementary School and serves as a park program leader during the summer at Fort Howard Park in the city.
“Out of the 36 parks, they gave me the keys to Fort Howard,” he said. “That’s where I grew up. I believe that God had something to do with it; returning to my roots, hearing these kids’ stories and seeing myself in these kids. I can relate to them with my own journey. I’m home and my life is a lot better now. My passion is giving back to these kids and this community.”
Sharing his story with young people is “an opportunity to give light to Christ,” he added.
Garbe continues to seek opportunities to grow in faith, including spending time in the adoration chapel at SS. Peter and Paul Church in Green Bay. The church provides peace in his life, he said.
“The church is like heaven on earth and it should feel different than the world,” he said. “That different feeling has healed me all these years through the tough times. Any opportunity I have for the sacraments and adoration, to be in the company of good people, that’s where I want to be.”