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Footprints in India: former North Liberty council member leaves home to volunteer

NORTH LIBERTY– From law student to claims adjuster, from U.S. Senate staffer to criminal defense attorney, from civic board member to politician, Jim Wozniak has held some important positions in the communities in which he has lived. He is now leaving them all behind for a new and very different role.
Wozniak departed Jan. 8 to become a volunteer for United Planet, an international non-profit organization that trains and sends volunteers to assist in community development projects in over 40 countries worldwide.
For the past several months, Wozniak has been preparing to live and serve in one of the poorest areas of India. He will be there for one year, working under the auspices of The International Cultural Youth Exchange (ICYE), staying with an Indian family and teaching in a rural school about 10 miles outside the city of Bangalore.
Bangalore is the capital of the Indian state of Karnataka, located in the southern part of India. It is a well-populated, urban area, a growing metropolis with colleges and research institutions, software companies and defense contracting industries. It is rich in culture and graced with beautiful historic landmarks. The region is also home to tens of thousands of poor families and underserved children, runaways, AIDS victims and orphans who are hungry, homeless or vulnerable to human trafficking. It is these populations Jim will serve.
Wozniak, who grew up in Cedar Rapids, said some of his friends who learned of his trip were surprised by his decision, an atypical move for a 31-year-old, up-and-coming lawyer recently licensed in two states. He just finished a four-year term on the North Liberty City Council, and was working for a well-known criminal defense attorney in the Quad Cities. When faced with the decision whether to run for council re-election– and the daily, 60-mile commute with long office hours– Wozniak said he thought it all through very carefully.
“I felt the time had come to look at a complete change in my career,” he said. Considering his options– perhaps starting his own law practice, moving closer to his current job or looking for legal work closer to home– he also rekindled a long-held interest in going abroad to serve others.
“It was the perfect timing for me. I’m not married, I don’t have a family of my own, I don’t own a house. This experience is a bridge between something I’ve always wanted to do, and what I am going to do in my future career,” he said. “Whatever that is.”
Even before law school, Wozniak checked into being a Peace Corps volunteer, but after making several Indian friends in college, his heart became set on India. The Peace Corps is currently concentrated in other countries.
“I wanted to go to India, one-hundred percent,” he said. “I started searching the Internet for volunteer opportunities, and I came across United Planet.” After more research, careful planning and an application process, Wozniak was assigned to Bangalore. He could have chosen a short-term volunteer experience, a few weeks or even six months.
“I chose to go for one year, because I want to experience a full cycle of all the weather, the special festivals and the holidays,” he said. “I wanted to immerse myself in a culture very different from my own.” He won’t have a cell phone, and his communications will be limited to an occasional blog or email, provided the Internet is accessible from his new place. He has gathered the physical addresses of close friends and family so he can send letters through the mail.
Wozniak’s family, his parents and brother who live in Cedar Rapids, weren’t very surprised by Jim’s resolve, though he said his mother is “a little scared. Every foreign place has its dangers, but surprisingly, they have all talked about coming to visit me, once I’m settled in.”
Wozniak doesn’t know exactly how long that will be; host families can be scarce, which means he may be living in a school building at first, or trying to find an apartment of his own. He was told he will be working in a school, but he doesn’t know what specific skills he will be asked to teach or what ages of children will be there. He expects to tutor kids in math and science, and help them develop their mastery of English. Most Indian people speak at least some English, but the national language is Hindi, with more than 1,600 local dialects.
“I will have some quick language training on the local dialect of Kannada when I arrive,” he said, “and I have some rudimentary knowledge of Hindi; I know enough to say please and thank you and ask where I can find food.”
He knows he will be leading kids in games and outdoor activities, and as a high school football and basketball official here at home, Wozniak is pleased to accept that task. He also looks forward to learning from them one of India’s favorite recreational pastimes: cricket. At some point in the course of his year, he will have a couple of weeks on his own, to travel other parts of India and do some sightseeing.
Though there are other volunteers assigned to Bangalore, he is the lone American. In fact, as Wozniak went through his training and orientation sessions with United Planet, there were only 14 other volunteers departing from the U.S. to other countries at the time, and most were high school or college graduates. Jim was one of three volunteers aged 30 or older, and partly due to their age, United Planet staff cautioned them to curb their idealism, to accept that this volunteer experience won’t likely change the world, and may not change even one life. Jim wasn’t deterred.
“I chose to go to India because of the people I’ve met. I’m not going there with the idea to make these kids better,” he said, “but I believe we can affect other people in good ways, maybe subtly, by just being there and doing good work. You can become a building block to another person’s success. All you can do is give them as much information and positive feeling as you can, and they’ll do with it what they will.”
On the flip side, in response to the most frequent question he’s been asked lately– what he hopes to gain from his journey– he shrugged.
“I don’t know, and that’s what I find most exciting. For once, I don’t have a plan. I just want to soak up as much of the experience as I can. I know the interaction will change me. It will be life-changing, no matter what.
“Bangalore has very poor areas, and when I leave, it will be just as poor,” he added. “But hopefully, I will also leave some footprints there.”