Celine and Don Woznica spent many years working in Central America on behalf of impoverished and disenfranchised villagers, often at great risk to themselves. They are now equally focused on accompanying asylum seekers in the U.S., particularly an influx of Venezuelan families who have been sleeping on the floor of Chicago’s District 15 police station.
Guided by a calling to help those who are marginalized — by their governments as well as ours — the Woznicas are part of an ad hoc group of Oak Park area volunteers, connected through a WhatsApp messaging channel, who have rallied around the asylum seekers, providing shelter, food, clothing, gift cards, phones and SIM cards, rides to doctors’ appointments and grocery stores, and arranging for schooling.
“We’ll get a notice about the arrival of a family and then we all hustle to help them. All the volunteers do what they can do. These folks come with nothing and they have crossed seven countries to get here. One of the things that concerned me was getting them access to showers,” said Celine.
To that end, she has used what she refers to as “nagvocation” (a little nagging, a little advocating) to arrange shower facilities and collect shampoo, soap and clean underwear for the asylum seekers.
BUILD, an Austin-based youth development and gang intervention organization, let the newcomers use their facilities, including showers, a laundry room and pool tables, and provided social workers during the day until summer programming began last month. Celine quickly pivoted and procured access during the day to the rectory at St. Catherine-St. Lucy Parish, which is being used in the evenings by Housing Forward as an emergency homeless shelter.
The Woznicas credit local restaurants involved in the Takeout 25 Oak Park initiative for providing food and/or space for food preparation.
“The restaurants, in gratitude for how the community rallied around them during the pandemic, have been exceptionally generous,” Don said. He mentions a group of Trader Joe’s employees who learned about their effort while eating at Cozy Corner, one of the Takeout 25 restaurants, and arranged for TJ’s to provide food to the restaurant to be cooked for the Venezuelans.
“The support of the community has been phenomenal,” said Don. “The group includes members of our Catholic parishes, Unity Temple, the secular Jewish community and evangelical churches in Austin. It just blows my mind.”
The Woznicas’ involvement is just the most recent chapter in their longstanding commitment to migrants and international service, a passion that was kickstarted when Celine spent her sophomore year in college studying abroad.
“That year in Europe gave me such a wanderlust and a desire to really know and understand other cultures. That, and my family’s orientation to service, had a huge impact on my life,” she said.
She remembers hearing her uncle talk about his efforts to fight racist federal housing policies in St. Louis, where she grew up, in the 1950s and ’60s. He participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. A physician, he provided free services for poor people, who in turn gave him produce from their gardens as expressions of gratitude.
Don, who grew up in Melrose Park and attended Fenwick High School, came from humble roots but knew he wanted to use his interest in the sciences to help people, which informed his decision to pursue medical school.
The couple met in college — Don attending the University of Notre Dame, Celine at adjacent St. Mary’s College and taking science classes at Notre Dame.
“Don’s roommate was kind of a mover and would walk around the library looking for girls who were studying science textbooks. Then he would ask them if they needed help. If he couldn’t answer their questions, he’d bring in Don. I decided to bypass the roommate and go directly to Don,” Celine said.
The couple stayed together when Celine transferred to the University of Iowa to enroll in a physician assistant program and Don went to Rush Medical College. However, they hit a rough patch in 1976 when Celine graduated and decided to spend a year in Honduras instead of moving to Chicago.
“Don assumed I would come to Chicago, but I was keen on doing international service. I just couldn’t see getting a job right away because it would mean putting my dream on hold. I went to Honduras and worked in a Jesuit parish clinic and was exposed to the evolving theology of liberation — an experience that radically and completely changed my life.
“I was living in a rural community on the outskirts of the banana camps overseen by the Standard Fruit Company, which had a history of overthrowing governments in conjunction with the U.S. I saw the poverty, the social injustice, and the very preventive health conditions. The experience convinced me to convert from clinical medicine to public health,” she said.
Returning to the U.S. in 1977, she found work at a community health center in Little Village while Don did his family practice residency at West Suburban Hospital. He proposed after he received the first check from his internship.
“It was terribly unromantic. I didn’t even know I was going to propose. On the way home, I was overcome with an urge to ask her to marry me. I was so nervous I couldn’t even look at her. I pulled over on Humphrey Avenue, behind my apartment, and just blurted out, ‘Will you marry me?’”
Miraculously, Celine accepted the awkward proposal — with one caveat: that Don agree to go back to Central America with her. More miraculously, Don agreed. Years after that fateful proposal, Don credits Celine with helping him channel his desire to aid others through medicine and admits that he might never have gone overseas if he hadn’t been for her.
“That year I was in Honduras was the year that wrote the rest of our life story,” Celine said.
Just months after the birth of their first child in 1981, the Woznicas took off for New York where they participated in a six-month orientation to lay missionary work with the Maryknoll Sisters. In January 1982, they went to Bolivia for Spanish language school before being assigned to serve in Ciudad Sandino, an impoverished barrio outside Managua, Nicaragua.
They lived in a one-room house with one lightbulb on a dirt road traveled by more oxen than cars. They had an outdoor latrine and used pages from books as toilet paper (“so you always knew where you were in a book,” Celine said, laughing). Don worked at a medical clinic and Celine trained community health workers serving refugees from El Salvador, which, at that time, was being torn apart by death squads. It was a stressful time because of the pervasive fear that the U.S., which was supporting the right-wing contras, might invade Nicaragua.
“Nicaragua was the second poorest country in Latin America — and it was becoming socialist,” she explained. “The Sandinista government put all its resources toward the poor, launching reading programs and farm co-ops, eradicating malnutrition and measles, and conducting door-to-door vaccination campaigns throughout the country. They vaccinated all the kids in the country in one weekend.”
Their second child, Maura, was born in Nicaragua in 1983. On the way to the hospital, they were stopped by a convoy of soldiers heading to the Honduran border to fight the contras.
“I could see that the soldiers were excited but frightened about going to the front. I remember thinking that I was about to give birth — while these young men were going off to war and possibly death,” Celine said.
Maura was named in honor of Maura Clarke, a Maryknoll Sister who had worked in Ciudad Sandino before answering Archbishop Oscar Romero’s call to serve in El Salvador. She and three other missionaries were raped and murdered by members of the Salvadoran military in December 1980.
“It meant so much to the Maryknoll Sisters and the people of Ciudad Sandino that we named our daughter Maura and that we had her in Nicaragua rather than flying home to the U.S. It meant as much to them as the work we were doing,” she recalled.
The Woznicas returned to the U.S. in December, 1984, at the end of their three-year contract. Don did a fellowship at West Suburban and Celine wrote her doctoral dissertation on the public health programs of the Sandinista government. They also did extensive Central American solidarity work, talking with church groups and the media.
But the itch to return to Central America was strong, and in 1986 they were invited by the Maryknoll Sisters to serve in Oaxaca, Mexico, doing medical and community health work. They stayed for six years, enough time to bring another two children into the world. They returned to the U.S. in 1992, as their oldest son was approaching adolescence, and settled in Oak Park.
“Living outside the country for years changes your perspective on the world — on politics, religion, everything. You see the world differently. It was an incredibly mind-expanding experience,” said Don.
The Woznicas’ passion for service and fighting the good fight continued in the local area. Don worked at Alivio Medical Center, a West Side community health facility serving Mexican immigrants and the uninsured, until retiring recently. Celine has been involved in migrant issues for many years as well as efforts to end gun violence and combat climate change. She is a member of the Austin/Oak Park Moms Demand Action chapter and works with Ascension/St. Edmund Parish’s HOME/Care of Creation climate action team.
They have served as role models for their children, participating with them on youth ministry activities through Ascension, including numerous Appalachian Service Projects and Young Neighbors in Action trips to Tijuana. Now adults, there’s not a slacker in the bunch.
Donald, their oldest, works as a family practice physician at a nonprofit community health center on the South Side. Maura, who served with Doctors Without Borders at a refugee camp in South Sudan, also is a family practice physician. Edgar did a fellowship in India and developed a curriculum for community mental health workers. He is now a psychiatrist at Erie Family Medical Center, a facility that treats patients regardless of their ability to pay. Daniel served for three years in the Peace Corps in South Africa and got his PhD in public health. He now works for the Society of Critical Care Medicine. Marian served a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, working with migrant workers in Arkansas, and just graduated from Northwestern University Law School.
In recognition of their collective commitment to serving immigrants, refugees and underserved communities — in the U.S. and abroad — the Woznica family received the 2019 Cultural Unity Award from TEACH (Teaching English to Advance Change), a west suburban nonprofit.
The Woznica family, which now includes eight grandchildren, all of whom will undoubtedly carry on the family’s service mission, are the embodiment of gifts that just keep on giving.