Karen Gray is a masterful juggler - she balances being a wife, mom, youth minister, nature lover and business owner all in perfect harmony.
It's not difficult, she said, because all the different hats she wears meld her passions in life.
Gray, 41, moved here 15 years ago from the Twin Cities, where she was born and raised. She was introduced to the lakes country by a girlfriend and then fell in love with the area.
"I'm a nature-oriented person," she said. "It was a better fit."
One of eight children, Gray grew up in humble beginnings in East St. Paul. Her father left the family when she was 5.
She attended a Catholic school, one block from her home. One year at Thanksgiving she remembers coloring labels to place on care packages.
Karen Gray, the youth minister at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Crosslake, wears many hats and she's proud of all of them. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey » Purchase reprints of this photo.
A nun later delivered one of the Thanksgiving boxes to their home. "We didn't know we were poor," Gray said. "I looked at Mom and said, 'Why are they giving us a box? We're not poor.'"
Gray credits her mother, grandmother and sister for her solid religious faith and strong work ethic.
"My mom raised eight children on her own without any help basically," Gray said.
Gray has focused that faith and work ethic into leading the youth ministry at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Crosslake.
"It's a very high priority in my life," Gray said.
"I'm very strong in my faith," Gray added, noting she wants others to be as excited as she is about their own faith. "The kids are a great place to plant it."
Address: Fifty Lakes.
Favorite Bible verse: Mark 8:36, "For what shall it profit a man who gains a whole world but loses his soul." Or Joshua 24:15, "As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord."
What inspires you? "Nature. And my children."
Proudest moment: "Moments in which I see in my children the important lessons in life, that I've taught them, come into fruition."
Favorite Halloween memory as a child: Growing up in East St. Paul where the houses were close together. Gray said she and her siblings would grab pillowcases and run trick-or-treating door-to-door. "It was great growing up in St. Paul. "
Food you can't live without: Pasta!
Claim to fame in the kitchen: Pepperoni stromboli bread.
Favorite flower: "There are so many that I love. I don't know if I could pick. Old-fashioned brown-eyed Susies are one of my favorites."
The pumpkin patch
What: An Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Crosslake youth ministry fundraiser.
Why: To raise funds to help hurricane victims in Haiti.
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Where: Thanks to Nature, 36037 Crow Wing County Road 66 in Crosslake.
Cost: Pumpkins range from $1-$16.
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Gray is involved in the church's religious education classes. She also helps coordinate and plan activities for youths, including retreats, rallies and fundraisers - various events geared toward helping kids grow in their faith.
"One of my main things in becoming a youth minister is faith in action - it doesn't stop at the door on Sunday," Gray said. "What we should be doing is serving one another."
The youth group is involved in a fundraiser with proceeds earmarked for those in need in Haiti, especially given the devastation caused by this year's tropical storms and hurricanes. More than 800 people died and damage is estimated at more than $1 billion.
Deacon Jim Kirzeder left a week ago for another trip to Haiti. For years, Kirzeder has traveled to Haiti to help those in need. He pays for his own expenses.
The contrast in the lives of American children and Haitian children is alarming, Gray said, noting a story Kirzeder has told of mothers in Haiti feeding their children dirt cookies to fill their stomachs to prevent them from wailing in the middle of the night because of hunger.
Gray said the intent of the pumpkin patch fundraiser is to contribute to Kirzeder's work to help re-establish water systems in Haiti.
"For us, I want the kids ... to know what great things and little things they can do to help other people."
The youth group has more than 1,000 pumpkins to sell. The costs range from $1-$16. Some balked at the $16 price but Gray said a church member noted, "You're making a donation to Haiti. The pumpkin is a bonus."
The community has been quite generous thus far in this fundraiser.
Gray said, "One lady bought $8 in pumpkins and gave me a check for $100. She just wanted to help the kids."
The message for the children in this effort is priceless, Gray said.
"Think about it. Little old us selling pumpkins can help get water to people in Haiti. Think what we can do not just globally but locally."
Gray hopes to instill in youths a natural sense of service - to one another, to community, to God.
"I want it to be innate from a young age that we can serve each other and be active in our faith," Gray said, adding church is not just some place to be on Sunday.
Gray said her work as youth minister is an opportunity to give back.
"I watched women in my life who were so strong," Gray said. "I want to pass that on to my kids - not only my kids but for younger kids going forward."
In the future, Gray hopes to expand the church's youth ministry. Next spring, the church will move to a new facility on Crow Wing County Road 37 south of Reed's Market. With more physical space in the building, there will be additional opportunities to host more youth events, such as regional retreats.
"I'm getting pretty jazzed up about the new location," Gray said. "It's going to be beautiful."
Gray's move to the Brainerd lakes area started a series of positive occurrences in her life.
Her acquintance with a Twin Cities service adviser for her vehicle blossomed into a serious romance. They married and Jack moved up north where they have created a home in Fifty Lakes.
Children followed. The Grays have two children - daughter Erin, 6, and son, Cole, 8. Both attend Crosslake Community School.
A former business professional in financial services - first with First Bank Systems Inc. in the Twin Cities and then with UPI in Brainerd, Gray combined a drive to own her business with a love of the outdoors.
About 11 years ago, she opened her store - Thanks to Nature, now located at 36037 Crow Wing County Road 66 in Crosslake. It's an interior decorating and retail store. And Gray offers a birding section as well as custom floral work.
At home, she enjoys gardening, photography and family.
"It's a passion," Gray said of her business. "I have an avid love for nature. I try to replicate the beauty you see in nature in my designs."
KATHI NAGORSKI may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5859.
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