Trick-or-treating their way to Kenya

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On Halloween, they left their homes as a firefighter, a flamenco dancer, a scarecrow, and a blow-up pig, among others. Consequently, on their holiday break, they'll leave their homes and travel thousands of miles to work with AIDS patients in Maseno, Kenya. If you're having a tough time seeing the connection, it's understandable.

Meet Danielle Zolnik, AKA the blow-up pig. She and eight of her classmates in the nursing program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will use trick-or-treating as a fundraiser to help send them to Africa for a medical mission trip this December. "We're entirely raising the funds ourselves," says Zolnik, a senior. "It's just a group of friends doing a mission trip."

The idea came a year ago when seniors in the nursing school heard a lecture about the devastating AIDS epidemic in Kenya. Eight students organized a trip last December to volunteer at Maseno Mission Hospital, helping the lone doctor there provide care and education to patients. As is the case in large parts of Africa, AIDS is an epidemic in the area, and medical supplies and volunteers are tough to come by. Upon returning from the small town just outside of Kisumu, Kenya, last year's seniors passed on the information and the contacts to Zolnik and this year's class. "We're trying to make it an annual trip," Zolnik says.

Planning has been underway for a while, as each student going on the trip needs to raise $2,500 to cover the flight (17 hours from Chicago, in case you were wondering), food, and lodging. Zolnik says her fellow students insisted she become group leader. She was the ideal choice as she had previously helped organize a group of college students to raise $100,000 for the American Cancer Society through the Relay for Life. "I don't get much sleep to be honest," Zolnik says with a laugh. "But I don't require much sleep, so it works out nicely."

Sleep will be in short supply over the coming months, as the group will be holding car washes, bratwurst fries, and searching for grants in an effort to raise the necessary funds. The trick-or-treating trip is expected to be one of the most fruitful endeavors, as last year's group raised $4,000. "One woman grabbed her checkbook and said 'I want to pay for one person's whole trip,'" Zolnik says.

This year, the group will again be going door-to-door seeking donations. They'll bring along an article from Monday's La Crosse Tribune just so people who haven't heard about the trip aren't skeptical. "They got a great response last year," Zolnik says. "Plus, we get to dress up as little kids."

Things will quickly turn serious come December 27, though. The group will be leaving home for 24 days, set to return on January 20. "When we get there, we'll be divided into three groups of three [by the small medical staff that runs Maseno Mission]," Zolnik says. "We'll be doing something different each day." On any given day, the students could be:

  • Working in the hospital seeing patients
  • Making home visits to help patients follow their treatment regimens
  • Teaching orphans at local schools

"They also went to a leprosy clinic one day last year," adds Zolnik.

With extra money they raise, the volunteer group will also be bringing supplies and textbooks with them. Following suit from last year's class, they are hoping to bring 80 stethoscopes, as well as some dental supplies.

After three weeks of compassion and care, the group will head out on a safari during the last two days of the trip. Zolnik, who has been out of the country only once on a trip to Germany, says the nerves have yet to set in. "I think my mom is freaked out enough for both of us," she says. "I'm mostly excited. It'll be an amazing culture shock."

And it's something Zolnik hopes to experience many times during her career as a nurse, which will likely begin in pediatric oncology. "Nursing is such a rewarding career to begin with, and something like this is even a more rewarding experience," she says. "[On these trips], it seems like people appreciate everything so much more."

Editor's note: Even though you likely weren't on the trick-or-treating route, you can donate to the Kenya trip. Contact Zolnik at or send donations to Danielle Zolnik, 1324 State St., La Crosse, WI 54601.