By Benjamin Wideman / Sports Information Director
Silver Lake College is more than just an educational institution for Elyse Schimelpfenig.
It's the family she longed for her entire life.
"When I tell people I chose Silver Lake College and they ask me why, I say to them, 'Because I feel I finally have a real family,'" Elyse said. "I was saying that even before I moved to campus. And once I got here (in mid-August), it became even more true. The staff and the faculty, everyone is amazing here. It's not that I kind of found a family. This is my family."
Anyone who has watched the Silver Lake College volleyball team play at home can attest that no student-athlete smiles more on the court than Elyse, a freshman from Waterloo.
But what many people haven't seen are the tears Elyse shed for much of her life while enduring a tumultuous childhood.
Elyse was born in Madison, where she was raised for much of the first 13 years of her life. She said her mother and father were still in high school when they had her, and her parents went separate ways when she was about 3 years old.
Elyse said her mother then met another man (with whom she had two sons) and he ended up getting deported to Mexico, so Elyse and the family spent a year living in Mexico before returning to Madison. Elyse also has a younger sister.
Throughout elementary school and middle school, Elyse said there were ongoing, major problems between her and her mother.
To escape the chaos, Elyse said, "A lot of times I would just find somewhere in the yard and sit there and look out on the horizon and think about God and purpose and picture my little brothers. Over time, I took on a role of caregiver for them. Starting when I was very young myself, I was like a mother to them. And it's still that way. Me moving out and being here at college is my first time not being there for them. They were really sad to see me go."
Occasionally during her youth, Elyse stayed with her maternal grandparents, Yancy and Sharon Kunz, in Deerfield, about 20 miles east of Madison. But each time she returned to Madison, the problems at home immediately flared up, she said.
"That's the basis of what made me who I am today," said Elyse, noting she's eager to let others know her background. "These weren't little issues here and there, they were very big problems I was dealing with. Through all the fighting with my mom, our final falling out was a huge turning point in my life.
"I said to myself, 'Either I'm finally going to do something about it, or I'll let it keep happening and my younger siblings will have to go through everything like I did.' So when I was 13 years old I took action to get law enforcement involved and took my little brothers with me and we moved in with my grandparents."
Her grandparents had moved to Cottage Grove by that time, and not long thereafter they moved to the countryside outside of Waterloo, about 25 miles east of Madison.
"I liked being in Waterloo because we got a much more intimate setting with school," Elyse said. "My brothers were my biggest motivation — to see them benefit and do well. They struggled educationally growing up because of moving around so much. So it was really important for them to have an intimate setting with their teachers. I was the one who went to their parent-teacher conferences. I was the one who sat down and did their homework with them. I've always been invested in their futures."
When Elyse was a high school freshman, she said she reached out to her biological father, with whom she hadn't been in contact with for about a decade.
"It was so weird how it happened," she said. "I was at a bonfire with a bunch of my friends, and we have this giant farm in our area and one of the guys mentioned, 'What's your last name?' because my legal last name (Schimelpfenig) is so long and peculiar. He said, 'Wait a second, we have a guy who drives semi for our farm with that last name.' So I found out that my dad had been working just down the street from me and I didn't know it."
Elyse contacted him via Facebook friend request, and she said they met up about a week later.
"Right away it was the tear-jerker reunion you could imagine it would be," Elyse said. "I had a group of friends come with me for support. We got together weekly at first, and then bi-weekly after a while, and then more distant from then on. Now we don't talk much because of a falling out at a family reunion. But meeting him, I sort of had a sense of having a family for the first time."
Following in the footsteps of her father's farming background, Elyse got involved with the Waterloo FFA. She served as secretary her junior year and vice-president her senior year. In addition, she participated in numerous FFA-related trips.
"I love the community we had in FFA," said Elyse, noting the group improved her interpersonal skills. "Some people describe going to church as an electric feeling. For me, every time I'd go to an FFA meeting it felt electric. I was like brought to tears sometimes."
During her time at Waterloo High School, Elyse also participated in Future Business Leaders of America, student council, yearbook, forensics and YOST, which stands for "young and old standing together" (which involved weekly meeting with elderly community members).
These days, Elyse still describes herself as "country girl goes business."
"It's still very much a part of where my heart lies," she said. "I can get in a trailer and drive a semi and go through the gears, I can do all that. I can be a country girl. I still listen to country music in private to help bring me back to center."
She also worked at a gun club for seven years, which led her to compete in trap-shooting events. "That was huge for me," she said. "I loved being out there and meeting the people."
And meeting people is how she first learned about Silver Lake College.
Elyse remembers the day she attended a college fair in Milwaukee.
"My guidance counselors encouraged me to go," she said. "A lot of the big schools I wanted to go to had scholarships, but they also had huge gloom and doom speeches for me about how hard and competitive it would be.
"So I was just wandering down the aisle of this giant college fair not feeling very good, almost in tears feeling defeated by all that, and there were a couple of admissions people from Silver Lake College who saw me wandering. They stepped out into the walkway to reach out to me and ask how I was doing. They started talking to me and immediately I felt better."
Elyse said that was a much different experience than she dealt with for much of her childhood.
"Back home, I never knew if there was someone who'd ask me how my day was. Here, I know that no matter where I am there will be someone reaching out to me," said Elyse, who also works in the college's Advancement Department as part of her SLC Works responsibilities.
Elyse's college experience also involves being a starter on the Lakers volleyball team.
She first started playing volleyball in fifth grade and cites Waterloo High School's WIAA Division 3 state championships in 2014 and 2015 as her athletic highlights.
"I have a love and passion for volleyball," said Elyse, a team captain at various levels in her youth. "I love being part of the team."
Silver Lake College volleyball coach Michaela Newberry noted, "Elyse is very hard working and strives to improve her skills every day. She is passionate about the sport and is willing to play any position to better the team. Based on her positive attitude and commitment to the game, you can tell she loves volleyball."
Elyse is majoring in biology, with the goal of one day owning a dental practice that caters to bilingual or Hispanic families.
"Because I have a family here at Silver Lake College now, I really feel like there's a lot of support for me to reach my goals for the future and help as many people as I can. I'm just going to keep pushing forward in life."
PHOTOS: Elyse Schimelpfenig (top, submitted; center, by Benjamin Wideman)