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Mara Aparnieks ’15 and Jocelyn Russell ’15 take possession of their new college home.

Housing Choices on Campus Knit Friends Together in Living Communities

When Mara Aparnieks ’15 was in high school, she knitted tiny, soft hats for premature babies still in the hospital. Her mother and sister, both knitters as well, joined her in the project that they called Hats From the Heart. Once at St. Norbert, Aparnieks immediately began searching for a way to bring the project to campus. Eventually she found it in the college’s Theme Houses.

Theme Houses, open to juniors and seniors, are campus homes where the residents commit to performing one service project per month based on a common topic or theme. Aparnieks and her housemates – Siyi (Mary) Hua ’16, Jocelyn Russell ’15, Alex Smith ’15 and Geni Tosatto ’16 – plan to knit and donate 20 preemie hats each month, plus hold some type of larger event every other month, such as a knit-a-thon, to involve the community and grow the program. 

“We don’t want our house to be just five people knitting hats,” says Aparnieks. “I know we can make a bigger difference if we get wider community involvement.” 

Hats From the Heart is one of eight Theme Houses for the 2014-15 school year. Another is Women for Change. The seven residents of this Theme House will be working to raise awareness of the campus’ new Cassandra Voss Center, dedicated to educating the college community and others about gender and diversity, plus assisting with its programming.

House leader Elizabeth Ryan ’16 says incoming first-year students may know more about the Cassandra Voss Center than current students, since they’ll likely tour the facility, along with all campus buildings, before arriving this fall. “There are at least three grades in our school that potentially don't know what the Cassandra Voss Center is all about,” she says, noting she first set foot in the building the week of finals last May. 

All of the college’s 24 campus houses are eligible to become Theme Houses. Applicants must have a collective grade point average of at least 2.0 and be in good judicial standing with the college. In addition to monthly service projects, residents must also meet monthly with their group leader, the whole group and their Theme House adviser, as well as creating a progress report. The upside for all this hard work? First choice of college housing, an enhanced résumé, and residents’ personal development and fulfillment.

In its four-year history, as many as 19 groups have applied annually to create a Theme House, with eight to 10 typically selected. The majority of applicants have been women – although one of this year’s houses is occupied by a group of football players who have volunteered together through the Boys & Girls Club their last three years at St. Norbert. The themes selected have ranged widely. They’ve included everything from tutoring to Big Brothers Big Sisters to ANAD (anorexia nervosa and associate disorders) awareness. Groups may reapply for their Theme House in subsequent years, and many do. 

Before Aparnieks’ group arrived this fall, some of her housemates – surprisingly – may have been practicing their newly acquired knitting skills. While Aparnieks and Smith are knitters and Russell knows the basics, Tosatto crochets and Hua doesn’t do either. “But that’s part of our learning process,” says Aparnieks, adding the group also plans to produce no-sew fleece blankets to ensure Hua and Tosatto are involved.

Sept. 2, 2014