RACINE — When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal on April 25, its destruction also hit close to home for a Racine native living in Brooklyn.
Natasha Wozniak, now a 39-year-old jewelry designer/metalsmith, had spent time in Nepal as a Fulbright Scholar 20 years ago. When she learned of the recent earthquake — which killed more than 9,000 people and injured more than 23,000 in that developing country — the 1993 Case High School graduate’s first thoughts were of her friends and adoptive family there.
Since first going to Nepal through a University of Wisconsin-Madison exchange program, Wozniak had stayed in touch with people there through visits and social media. Once she learned that her “family” had survived the quake, she wired $300 to her “nephew,” Bibek Pandit, a human rights activist who used the money to buy much-needed supplies for area residents.
Building a village
Soon Wozniak’s friends in the U.S. were asking her how they could help with relief efforts on the ground. So, she created a fundraising page (fundforlamjung.org) and within a week had raised $2,000.
Those funds allowed Pandit, now 24, to buy tarps, tents, medicine and other supplies which he distributed to remote villages, she said. It was while visiting a village in the Lamjung district that Pandit told her he’d been asked to take on the project of rebuilding homes there.
“I received a text message from him at 3 a.m. saying ‘I’ve been asked to rebuild a village,’ and I responded with ‘I’m in, let’s do it,’ ” Wozniak said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t even ask how.”
Together she and Pandit are working to build those homes in the village of Rainaskot, one of the worst-hit areas in the Lamjung district, according to Wozniak.
“It’s also a little bit remote and may not be reached by other relief projects,” she said. “So, it’s a good choice for us to be putting our energy toward.”
While Pandit and the team in Nepal will handle the actual building, Wozniak and the team here are supporting the project through fundraising, with support in the U.S. from 50 Cents, Period, and on the ground in Nepal by Sarvodaya Sewashram.
A June fundraiser she organized in New York City raised $8,500. And on Friday, Wozniak will be back in Racine to host a fundraiser through which she hopes to raise more toward their initial goal of $20,000.
The Night Out for Nepal-Racine will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. at Envi Ultra Lounge, 316 Main St. It will feature live music, food and drink, a silent auction (featuring Nepal-inspired artwork) and a presentation by Wozniak about the project.
Tickets are $45 in advance, $50 at the door, and can be purchased online at fundforlamjung.org/racine-benefit.
If she and Pandit reach that goal by the end of August, it will be enough to fund the construction of the first five houses, Wozniak said.
A total of 20 homes in Rainaskot were completely destroyed by the earthquake, she said.
Her ultimate goal is raise enough money to rebuild all of the houses, and to allow donors to see how and where their money is being used, along the way.
Once the first five houses are underway, donors will be able to connect their investment directly to a house, Wozniak said.
The direct investment aspect of Fund for Lamjung is one of the things Sue Hipp of Racine said she feels makes the project special.
“When I give money to organizations that are not local, I often wonder whether my money will really be used for the people who need it,” said Hipp, a retired Case High School counselor who knew Wozniak during her time there. “Natasha has friends and ‘relatives’ in Nepal so she is able to show contributors pictures of the people who will be helped, the people who are doing the work — even pictures of the supplies that were bought.”
Wozniak said that once she and Pandit have physical proof of their mission in place, with construction under way, she hopes to take the project to the next level, promoting it nationally.
“Once this village is rebuilt, we are not ruling out keeping the project going in other villages, too,” she said.