Michael Nowak was a boy when he met Irena Woszczak in the late 1970s at the Broadway Market. His father owned a butcher stand and she was a customer who a dozen years later would take ownership of an optical business that continues to serve patrons inside the iconic East Side shopping hub.
It was a time when families in the neighborhood, including theirs, ate dinners together, parents accepted no excuses for missing Sunday Mass, and first- and second-generation immigrants did whatever they could to eke out a living.
“We didn’t know we were poor,” Nowak said. “I grew up with a black-and-white TV and my mom didn’t have a car, but we still had a good sense of community.”
Nowak went on to get his medical technology degree at the University at Buffalo in 1996 and became a physician assistant six years later. He later went into teaching at Emory & Henry College, a small southwestern Virginia liberal arts school in the Appalachian Mountains.
He and Woszczak, owners of Broadway Optics, have been Facebook friends for years. Last winter, he convinced her to join him on his 10th visit to serve the primary care needs of people who live in poverty in the annual mountain villages of Jalapa, Guatemala, an agricultural region 100 miles east of the capital, Guatemala City.
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“I saw a lot of the religion and the same sense of community there,” Woszczak said earlier this month.
Life in Jalapa spares for those Nowak and his contingent of 23 medical providers and students – including UB freshman Lily Rzepecki – served during the weeklong visit.
“They live like Jesus did 2,000 years ago,” Nowak said. “Mud huts and tin roofs, very little if any running water or electricity. They still cook with wood.”
Nowak and his team came bearing canes, walkers, wheelchairs and other medical equipment, as well as a six-month regimen of medications for common chronic conditions. The group practice physical exams and addresses common problems and conditions including rashes, gastrointestinal woes.
“It’s a variety of old school medicine and newer medicine,” Nowak said, “and I say the newer medicine because we’re starting to see more cigarettes down there, and we’re starting to see more sodas. That’s why we’re getting more hypertension and diabetes today than 10 years ago.”
Woszczak brought sunglasses for those who work in the hot Central American sun and reading glasses for those who work in embroidery and other handicraft trades. She could have used lots more.
The region, about half the size of Western New York, has a small community hospital in the regional capital of the same name. “They don’t even have a CT scanner,” Nowak said. “They just have an X-ray machine. There are minimal medications. They don’t have Tylenol. They don’t have aspirin. It’s nice that we can take the students there to learn a little bit about the basics.”
The group saw 700 patients in several small community centers, thanks to the generosity of those who gave to a GoFundMe page, as well as donations from purveyors who serve Woszczak.
Nowak will bring the next contingent of volunteers to Jalapa after Christmas. He has started a 2022 Student Guatemala Medical Mission trip GoFundMe fundraiser.
Woszczak – who sees the same sense of community gelling on the East Side as new immigrants move into the neighborhood – plans to be among the group, with a larger supply of spectacles.
“The gratitude of the people is amazing,” she said. “I can’t believe how quickly I fell in love with Guatemala.”