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Guatemala RPCV Donna Gorski comes home to make DeKalb her next mission
Guatemala RPCV Donna Gorski comes home to make DeKalb her next mission
World traveler comes home to make DeKalb her next mission
By Rob Carroll -- Staff Writer
Editor's note: This is the fourth story in a yearlong series profiling DeKalb County residents who go out of their way to become involved in the civic life of their communities.
DeKALB -- Traveling thousands of miles through more 20 countries over 30 years could easily weaken one's link to home and community.
Not so for local activist and DeKalb resident Donna Gorski.
Since last year when she wrapped up an international travel schedule that included trips to Guatemala, Zimbabwe and Brazil, Gorski, 47, has focused her attentions on what she can do to improve things a little closer to home.
To that end, she's been one of the more frequent and vocal voices when it comes to growth, preserving farmland and neighborhood safety.
Her world tour begins
Gorski first came to DeKalb to study anthropology at Northern Illinois University, but she grew up in Geneva, Ill.
"It (Geneva) was a great place to grow up with a small-town atmosphere where neighbors looked out for each other," Gorski said. "I feel very fortunate growing up when I did and where I did."
When she finished graduate school at NIU, she enlisted in the Peace Corps.
"I thought grad school was a wonderful time in my life, but the Peace Corps topped it," Gorski said.
Gorski was sent to Guatemala where she taught people how to vaccinate animals. The bulk of the work was done on chickens.
"Everybody in town has chickens and that's sort of their bank account," Gorski said. "If they need money, they sell a chicken."
One of the most traumatic events of her stay came the first time she vaccinated a chicken.
To practice, she first vaccinated her own chicks. Later in the day she vaccinated more in the village.
"I would always to do it in front of the church because if chickens died they would say, well, it's God's will.," Gorski said.
When she came home that day, her chicks had died.
Gorski left town fearing she had also killed almost every chicken in the village. The next day she received a telegram notifying her nothing was wrong with the chickens in the village.
While in Guatemala, Gorski lived in a remote location in the mountains without electricity.
"Six months of the year it rained and it rained hard," she said. "It became very dangerous to go to outlying settlements because you would just slide off the mountain."
Gorski also said it took the local residents more time to adjust to seeing her than it did for her to feel comfortable in her new surroundings. For some, Gorski was the first American they had ever seen.
"They thought I was kind of strange," Gorski said. "The folks there taught me a heck of a lot more than I ever taught them."
At the conclusion of her two-year term, Gorski was ready to sign up for another couple years in Guatemala, but Peace Corps organizers had other plans.
The Peace Crops pulled out of Guatemala after a volunteer was murdered and Gor-ski's term wasn't renewed.
After a stint as a mental health specialist in Elgin, Gorski moved on to work for American Field Service, a company that organizes programs for foreign exchange students.
AFS is headquartered in New York, but Gorski had to visit the homes of foreign exchange students throughout the Midwest.
"I did a lot of road trips," Gorski said. "Some four weeks at a time."
She eventually wound up working for Rotary Interna-tional as a manager of a division of their humanitarian grant program.
Gorski had to travel to places such as the Phil-ippines, South Africa and Zimbabwe to make sure grant recipients were using their money properly.
"I kind of got a reputation," Gorski said. "When they heard I was coming they knew something was up."
In between the trips, which were mostly to Central and South America, Gorski commuted between her home in DeKalb and the Rotary International office in Evanston.
"After 10 years of commuting from here to Evanston I had just had it," Gorski said.
She moved on to have a shorter commute by doing home estimates for heating and air-conditioning units for a company out of Aurora.
"It may sound real glamorous to be traveling all over the world, but I started becoming more concerned for neighborhood and my community," Gorski said. "The pull for working with my community started to be greater as I entered middle age."
A watchful eye
Today Gorski is able to concentrate more on what is happening around her home in the 100 block of Maple-wood Avenue.
She and other residents had noticed graffiti was becoming a popular trend in the neighborhood in 1997
"We wanted it stopped and we didn't want our neighborhood to go down the tubes," Gorski said.
Along with the help of her neighbor, Joella Lynch, Gorski organized a block party for those living on Maplewood and Evans avenues.
The event was more than just fun games for kids. It was used as way for neighbors meet.
"A lot of the neighbors didn't know the other neighbors' names," Gorski said.
In addition to the socializing, neighborhood residents also voiced their concerns about increasing crime in the area.
Gorski contacted the DeKalb Police Department and ultimately she and neighbors began a neighborhood watch program.
A phone tree was organized to report possible criminal activity in the neighborhood.
"If somebody gets their bike stolen Joella usually knows about it first because she's got kids in the schools," Gorski said.
The Neighborhood Watch program seemed to work; both Gorski and Lynch saw less graffiti.
"I believe we have done a lot to stop the people who try and hamper our neighborhood with graffiti signs," Lynch told the Daily Chronicle earlier this year.
"Neighbors said they were really enjoying the neighborhood and their homes more," Gorski added.
To celebrate, the residents had more block parties, one even called Mardi Gras on Maplewood, with hopes of drawing more neighbors.
"Oh, we're hokey," Gorski said. "We make everybody put a name tag on."
Attendance had grown since the previous block party, but Gorski still wasn't satisfied.
One group of people she wanted at the event were the landlords in the Maplewood-Evans area.
"We have some less-than-concerned landlords and that turns into a situation where we have difficulties with their tenants," Gorski said.
Gorski would eventually like to start developing better relationships with the landlords in her neighborhood.
"But when do I find the time?" she said.
The neighborhood is the home to both permanent residents and those who are staying in DeKalb while studying at NIU.
"It's primarily more of a blue-collar neighborhood than a white-collar neighborhood," Gorski said. "Down to Earth folks."
She said the more-permanent residents tend to care a lot more about their surroundings.
"When that mortgage payment comes and you pay your property taxes you become a lot more interested in your neighborhood then when you were a renter," Gorski said.
Maintaining the countryside
Outside of protecting her own neighborhood, Gorski is trying to protect the surroundings of others through her involvement in the DeKalb County Farmland Foundation.
The group is currently working on finalizing an easement to establish the first permanent preservation of farmland in DeKalb County. A farmer in Mayfield Township has donated 100 acres.
Gorski hopes to have it finalized sometime this summer.
She can't help but be excited when talking about the foundation. Gorski's interest in farmland preservation can be traced back to her childhood.
"From the time I was a small child my mom would look out the window and say 'Someday that will all be paved,'" Gorski said about living with her family in Geneva.
Her parents became fed up with the constant building and growth in Geneva and moved to Oregon, Ill.
"If I won the Lottery I would buy 40 acres of DeKalb County farmland," Gorski said. "I would continue farming until I was dead or the money ran out."
According to Gorski, residential growth not only hampers quality of life, but affects the water supply.
She said some areas closer to Chicago have become dependent on water from Lake Michigan.
"I don't think anybody in DeKalb County entertains the idea we could run off the mighty Kish," Gorski said.
Local officials respect Gorski's outspoken persona whether they agree with her or not.
"She's highly active," said DeKalb Fourth Ward Alderman Mike Knowlton. "I've got a lot of respect for Donna in that regard."
Her involvement in the DeKalb County Farmland Foundation led to an invitation to join DeKalb Mayor Greg Sparrow's growth summit.
"Naturally I wanted to touch all bases including those who are not for growth," Sparrow said. "I think she represents that point of view and that point of view needs to be represented."
At an early summit meeting, Sparrow asked how many people wanted no growth in the area.
Gorski was the only one raise her hand in support of very little, if anymore, growth.
"If there were others there she was the only one brave enough to raise her hand (in opposition)," Sparrow said.
Sparrow commended Gorski for taking responsibility for giving her opinions in a public forum. He said Gorski never hesitates to put her name on a letter to the editor.
"At least you're getting an honest opinion," Sparrow said. "She doesn't have to agree with you."
Rob Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.