When she was 11, Marzena's 35-year-old father died of cancer. Four years later, her mother, at age 37, also died of cancer. Relatives decided that 15-year-old Marzena would leave Poland to live with her father's sister in the United States.
Suddenly orphaned and transplanted to Connecticut with an English vocabulary of five words, Marzena struggled to overcome the simultaneous challenges of learning the language, acclimating to a new family and culture, navigating the academic and social worlds of high school and over-coming grief.
Years later, an accomplished entrepreneur, web director / designer and marketing guru, Marzena Kmiecik's story is one of success. But she hasn't forgotten what she overcame and has recently turned her talents to helping other orphaned kids.
This year, Marzena founded OrphaWorld, a crowd-sourcing alliance composed of rescue volunteers determined to improve the lives of orphaned children around the world.
Over a cup of coffee in Little Italy, she talks with enthusiasm about the organization, its efforts and goals. Not that she needs the caffeine—Marzena's constantly animated. Thirty-something, down-to-earth and good-looking, she has the kind of vibrant presence that commands attention and makes you understand why she's been a success in the private sector. And, as she's unmarried and without children, the kids in the orphanages she's devoted to helping have, in a sense, become her own.
I ask her how she got the idea to start OrphaWorld.
"I knew for a long time I wanted to do something," she says. "I know what it's like to be helped by someone who really isn't obligated. Whether it's adoption by family or a stranger, it makes no difference. I felt like I had this insight that not everybody had."
She decided to create a hub where businesses and individuals who wanted to participate in programs that help neglected, abused or orphaned children could find programs that match their interests and abilities to help.
OrphaWorld will facilitate these connections and develop programs that directly benefit kids in need. The target launch of the site is Jan. 1. People can learn about initial ways they can get involved by visiting facebook.com/groups/orphaworld.
Marzena's passion for helping children is inspiring, so when she invites me to join her on a visit to one of the poorest orphanages in Tijuana, I don't hesitate. We join Corazon De Vida, a group that's been helping Baja's orphans for 18 years, for a day trip by bus to bring supplies and good cheer to the kids of El Faro orphanage. Marzena explains that partnering with organizations that help Baja's orphans, who have no government financial support and are directly accessible, is a logical place for her San Diego-based organization to begin fostering connections.
When our bus of 40 volunteers of all ages from L.A., Orange County and San Diego arrives at El Faro, we're greeted by dozens of kids, who then join us for arts-and-crafts projects, games and music. Located in a series of ramshackle bungalows built on a landfill above a highway, the orphanage grounds are broken concrete and dirt. Drinking water is in a large plastic tank; kids share clothes and have minimal personal possessions. The dorms are clean, but there are holes in the walls and minimal lighting. With so many safety and health dangers, the place would never pass code in the U.S.
Natalia, an adorable 5-year old, adopts me on this trip and won't let me put her down. I've brought bilingual books, and Natalia and her friend Jania gravitate to Dr. Seuss. Jania's a very good reader. Another kid, a 12-year old named Hector, goes for Harry Potter. Another 12-year old, a polite, quiet girl named Cielo, reads four full chapters of Charlotte's Web before the day is over.
The thing that gets you is how happy and grateful and bursting with potential the kids are. It makes you forget that their stories are tragic.
While I'm there, I remember something: My own grandfather lived in an orphanage for years during the Great Depression. The visit suddenly makes sense on a personal level, and it feels like a calling.
And that's part of why this is my last column. I have a demanding day job as a science writer and a novel to complete by 2013. There's only room in my life right now for one more dedicated writing project, and it's going to be helping Marzena with OrphaWorld.
This month marks exactly seven years since I was hired as a columnist for CityBeat, and it's been my privilege to contribute to San Diego's cultural life and to be a part of this group of amazing people. I'm particularly grateful to David Rolland, Kelly Davis and Kevin Hellman. I will stay on as an occasional contributor, but my days as a regular columnist have come to an end.
I feel that taking this step is inevitable. Seven years is a long time to devote to something you love, but sometimes you're called to take your life and love in a different direction. I'm giving up what has been an important part of my life in order to move forward on my personal journey. Thanks for being part of it, dear reader.