Oak Parker Maura Woznica finished college and decided to take a year off. Not unusual for a recent graduate, but Woznica's plans are anything but typical. She's going to Kenya and Bolivia to work in community clinics in small villages, helping serve people in desperate need of health education, AIDS prevention information and care.
Anyone who knows Woznica's family won't be surprised by her decision. Her parents, Don and Celine Woznica, volunteered their skills in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Mexico until Woznica was 9 years old; she didn't live in the United States until 1992. Raised with a strong Catholic faith and a commitment to volunteerism, Woznica believes this work is what she was meant to do.
"This is what I grew up with, this is what I know, and this is what I love to do," she explains.
With a degree in psychology and pre-medical studies from Notre Dame University, Woznica plans to go to medical school to become a primary care physician. But rather than march right off to class, she's decided "to step outside of the formal setting and use the world as my classroom for my medical training," she says.
Woznica will be working with two nonprofit organizations, Village Volunteers and Maryknoll. Both are dedicated to placing volunteers in destitute areas. Village Volunteers supplies trained volunteers in villages throughout Kenya, concentrating on providing primary medical care and combating the AIDS epidemic. Maryknoll, a Catholic organization, has a less specific agenda but is dedicated to aiding the poor by sending missionaries around the world.
Woznica leaves Sunday for Kenya to begin her work with Village Volunteers. She'll be living in a small village outside of Nairobi, working at a public health clinic that provides basic health care for people with AIDS. She then plans to move on to an orphanage for children of AIDS victims, helping with basic health care and education and entertaining the kids a bit as well.
"I'm very excited to get the chance to provide them with what they need," she says. Despite her lack of professional experience, her pre-med degree will enable Woznica to assist at the small village clinics.
The AIDS epidemic has been a focus for Woznica since she attended a World AIDS Day mass during a high school trip to El Salvador. "You saw people in every stage of the disease, but there was so much hope, during the mass, that they would overcome it," she recalls. During her three-month stay in Africa, she hopes to assist Kenyan AIDS patients, helping them explore their options, learn some English, and get basic health care.
Woznica believes that the AIDS epidemic is a serious international problem, and one that needs serious volunteers. "We've built AIDS awareness in the United States, but they don't have that in other countries. That's the goal: to do what we've done in the United States in other countries. The best way to stop the disease is to stop it spreading."
Without the support of friends, her parish at Ascension Church and her family, Woznica wouldn't be making this trip. With their assistance, she raised over $8,000 to pay for her training, air fare, and needs while abroad.
"I am a very lucky girl," Woznica says, describing the enthusiastic response to her requests for funds. Grateful for the help, she's hoping to use her experiences as a way to get people here involved in international relief work.
"I feel that I'll be able to get people interested in what is happening in other parts of the world," she says. She plans on trying to connect her community to the more needy parts of the world, using her experience to inspire others.
"People love to help. If you give them the opportunity, they love to do it," she believes.
In December, Woznica will leave Africa and head to El Alto, Bolivia, where she hopes to renew her love affair with Latin America and fulfill her desire to work in a community clinic. Above all, she's looking forward to making a difference. "I don't believe we know how bad it is in other countries," she says.
After her year-long trip to two continents, Woznica plans to come home and start medical school. She sees the additional years of school as another phase of her commitment to service. "The more educated we are, the better use we will be to others," she says.