Alumni Spotlight: Laura Zdrowski

Laura Zdrowski is a 23 year old from Sacramento, California. After graduating from UCLA with a degree in English, she volunteered with African Impact in St. Lucia as a Medical Outreach and HIV/AIDS Education volunteer for a month in November of 2011. She is now attending nursing school in Denver, Colorado and loves to spend her free time playing soccer, spending time with friends, and traveling.

Woman with a child in South Africa holding a sign

Why did you decide to volunteer with African Impact in South Africa?

Laura: I decided to volunteer with African Impact in South Africa for a few different reasons: my best friend was completing her Peace Corps service in Khula Village by St Lucia, I had just graduated from undergrad and was itching for an adventure, and I was about to begin nursing school and wanted to gain experience in international healthcare. I chose African Impact because, from the looks of their website and from my friend's experience in the village, they had the most pervasive impact in the community. Not only did they participate in many meaningful projects and events, they also played a sustainable and impactful role in these South African communities.

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Laura: One of the reasons why I loved African Impact so much is because I felt busy and productive each and every day. Each weekday, the volunteers would wake up and eat breakfast together and then head to project they were assigned to for that morning. The volunteers were generally split between medical volunteers, who focused on home-based care visits, clinic support, and HIV/AIDS support groups, and educational volunteers who spent most of their time in kreches (preschools) and after-school programs. Both teams also spent a great deal of time on HIV/AIDS education in primary schools and adult learners, gardening in the community garden, and "ten families" in which we visited the ten families the induna (think president of the village) deemed most in need and worked to assist them in any way we could.

Normally volunteers would work for four hours in the morning, return for lunch, and set out again for four hours of afternoon work. Because we would visit two neighboring villages, Khula and Eswenelisha, we were pretty busy! One of those afternoons would be spent planning for the following week's projects and volunteers would spend a few hours brainstorming new games or lessons for the children or new health topics to cover during HIV/AIDS support groups. After a long day of work, we would gather for delicious dinners cooked by our house cook. We would spend the rest of the evening playing games together or relaxing. Weekends were free for excursions and traveling, exploring St Lucia, or relaxing on the beach.

Woman with a child in South Africa

What made this experience unique and special?

Laura: I loved the balance between structure and relaxation, volunteering and tourism. Because South Africa is such a diverse country, full of extreme poverty, wealth, beauty, and tragedy, I thought it was special and fitting for our experience to incorporate all of these aspects. Although at times it was difficult to wrap our heads around these dichotomies, I felt it was important to experience, and to do so as a team.

Our wonderful and passionate volunteer coordinators, Alanna and Sofie, also did an amazing job getting everyone involved and inspiring enthusiasm, oftentimes challenging us to come up with our own ideas and projects to make the experience a more personal one.They were always available to talk, answer questions, and were constantly thinking of ideas to make our time more special. I was also lucky enough to be with African Impact during World AIDS Day, and the events we participated in that week are the memories that I hold most dear to my heart -- the energy, hope, and advocacy fueled by these villages was absolutely inspiring.

How has this experience impacted your future?

Laura: My experience with African Impact greatly impacted my future. Although I already had plans to go to nursing school, my experience in South Africa solidified my decision, as nursing is a profession in which you are able to help and impact others everyday. My experience also awakened in me a passion for preventative health education and advocacy, and I plan to incorporate this into my practice both in the states and abroad in my future. Although I already had interest and knowledge on the topic of HIV/AIDS, this experience truly opened my eyes to the devastating effect this epidemic has had in Africa, and more specifically in South Africa -- in the Kwazulu-Natal region, around 40% of inhabitants are infected by this deadly virus.

This realization therefore also inspired a passion for HIV/AIDS education and advocacy and I have taken clinical elective courses on caring for patients infected by HIV/AIDS since beginning nursing school in the states. Finally, my experience showed me the beauty of a continent I once feared as too exotic and unknown -- I will never forget the beauty of the song, dance, and smiles of the South Africans of Khula and Eswenelisha villages.