A Healthier Haiti
Public health nurse and educator has made Haiti her mission
Jennifer Weitzel Blahnik is a sports fanatic. Growing up, she played basketball, but, ironically, baseball was her passion. She even dreamed of becoming the first woman to play in the major leagues.
UW–Madison was the perfect spot for Blahnik to indulge her love of sports, though this time as a fan. And when she wasn’t in the stands cheering on the Badgers, Blahnkik studied hard to earn a degree in bacteriology. By the time she graduated, though, she realized the lab environment just wasn’t for her. Instead, Blahnik decided, she wanted a career with a direct impact on people’s lives. So with the encouragement of family and friends, she went back to school, earning a bachelor's and then a master’s in nursing with a certificate in global health. She currently works as a nurse for Public Health Madison & Dane County and as a public health instructor at Edgewood College.
“Having one foot in academia and the other in practice helps me stay up to date with what’s going on in both realms,” Blahnik says.
Originally from Beloit, Blahnik calls herself a “proud Madisonian with a passionate interest in public health” on both the local and global scale, with a special interest in Haiti. In 2006 she co-founded a nonprofit, Health Ministries for Haiti, and the organization has since partnered with an orphanage just outside Port-Au-Prince that’s home to fifty-four children. The faith-based HMH also supports a nearby clinic by supplying medications, training to staff, operational support and medical mission teams, and helps set up and operate mobile clinics in the area.
Blahnik recalls her interest in Haiti originating from her first job in nursing. Deeply compelled by the stories a co-worker brought back from a trip there, she decided to gather more information about the country, its public health challenges and how she might contribute. A few years later, with the help of her sister and brother-in-law, who had adopted a teenage Haitian boy, she founded the nonprofit and began making regular trips along with ten or so partners who travel with her to conduct check-ups and help maintain the clinic and orphanage. Blahnik and her team were on a routine medical mission to Haiti last January when the catastrophic earthquake struck.
“We were fortunate enough to be in a structurally sound building when the earthquake occurred,” Blahnik says. “Most Haitians, however, were not so lucky.”
Blahnik and other HMH volunteers will be returning in January, this time to train clinic workers in nurturing the post-disaster physical and mental health needs of its residents.
While her career path is rewarding, it can be physically and emotionally exhausting, which is why Blahnik happily switches gears to discuss one of her favorite ways to relax. Still an avid Badger fan, she mentions—with mild disappointment—that she was unable to watch the monumental Ohio State win because she was visiting a Haitian friend in New York. But she did check for updates on her phone throughout the night. “I think my friend understood,” she laughs.
Some of Blahnik's other free-time indulgences include dining out on tenderloin at Eldorado Grill and duck at The Tornado Club with her husband and friends, catching “The Office” on TV, reading (she highly recommends The Secret Life of Bees and Mountains Beyond Mountains), and rocking out to Bob Marley and Def Leppard. “I’m totally a child of the eighties when it comes to music,” she says.
Even while indulging in well-deserved downtime, Blahnik confesses that Haiti is never far from her thoughts. She is constantly amazed by the optimism of the people she’s met there, in spite of the unimaginable obstacles they face. “They possess a sense of generosity and compassion that I’ve witnessed in few other places, if any.”
But what she admires most about the people of Haiti is their resilience, spirit and faith. “I know those words have been liberally thrown around a lot, especially since the earthquake, but they really are all those things. I’m truly humbled by them.”
To support the upcoming trip to Haiti, Jennifer Weitzel Blahnik and HMH are hosting a “get a gift, give a gift” fundraiser at the Bourbon Street Grille this Saturday (October 30), from 1–4 p.m. Retailers Arbonne, Lia Sophia, Thirty-One and Wildtree will be selling a wide selection of products and a portion of the proceeds will go directly to Health Ministries for Haiti. healthministriesforhaiti.org