By Rebecca Benison
For Paul Willenbrock ’10 and Donna Willenbrock (née Strong) ’82, ’01, who wed in 1990, giving back is more than a priority, it’s a way of life. After long and varied careers, both finally chose nursing as their true calling, and found Adelphi’s School of Nursing to be exactly what they needed to get started on their new career path. Paul, a tennis pro for about 15 years and a highly successful business consultant after that, found that he just wasn’t fulfilled by the daily grind. “I wanted something that was meaningful, and nursing was the way to go,” he said.
Donna had already had a positive experience in the School of Nursing, so Paul decided to follow in her footsteps and enroll. He graduated with his Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 2010. Following her 2001 graduation, Donna became an adult nurse practitioner in a private practice specializing in both pulmonary medicine and palliative care. Currently, she’s working as an adult nurse practitioner for two internal medicine practices. Paul has put his degree to good use in the psychiatric ER of a Long Island hospital.
As they progressed, the couple learned just how much nursing fit into their everyday lives. As devoted foster parents, they found that it was the perfect option to blend their education in school with the very real lessons at home. Although the balancing act was trying, they found great support at Adelphi.
“[School of Nursing] Dean [Patrick] Coonan was very instrumental in helping me…juggling two jobs and between six and seven kids, it was quite challenging,” Paul said. “I feel like I got the best of all possible worlds,” said Donna. “The professors were great, and everybody was so supportive.” During her final semester, Donna gave birth to the couple’s youngest daughter. “The professors actually let me bring the baby to class. It was so wonderful…it’s a family school.”
Over the past 12 years, Donna and Paul have had a total of 15 children in their care, usually with a sibling group of three or four foster children. Currently, they have six children of their own—three biological and three adopted siblings, all ranging in age from 8 to 20 years.
For Donna, who had completed the program nearly a decade before Paul, the path wasn’t quite as clear-cut. After initially interviewing for admission to the program, she was told by the dean at the time that she had “too much of an assertive personality to be a nurse.” Instead, she initially pursued a career in banking, eventually becoming the chief securities compliance officer for American Express Bank International, where she worked from 1993 to 1998.
Well before earning a B.S. in Nursing (2001), Donna had earned a B.S. in Management and Communications, which prepared her for the fast-paced business world. The latter degree came from Adelphi’s University College in 1982—then known as the Adult Baccalaureate Learning Experience (ABLE).
After her mother’s passing in 1996, however, she decided to leave American Express Bank and give herself some time to adjust. “Just by a fluke, I went to Adelphi to pick up my transcripts and an admissions officer noticed I had previously interviewed to the School of Nursing,” she said. The woman brought Donna over to the dean who had initially led her to pursue a business career, and she was accepted on the spot.
While it is no easy feat taking care of so many while going back to school and continuing to work, the Willenbrocks have no regrets, and are happy to provide a loving home to those who need it. For Paul, it is a personal mission to give children the safe and stable environment he so craved as a child. For Donna, it’s continuing the legacy of service instilled in her by her mother, who said, “If you can give any of these kids a home, you need to do this.” Knowing that they could provide that home to children in need, the choice was clear to both.
“I always wanted to adopt,” Paul said. “I wanted to adopt and give these kids a second chance. I wanted to do something to really make a difference…Each one can be a horror story in itself, but with us, each child is treated like they’re our only child.