Nurse Katie Farka was so smitten with providing a healing touch to people in Ethiopia that she sold her house in La Crosse, quit her job and will embark soon on a year-long volunteer mission that probably will stretch to two years or more.
“I have wanted to be a medical missionary since I was in nursing school,” explained the 33-year-old Farka, a hematology and oncology nurse who has worked at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse for eight years.
After visiting Ethiopia several years ago with family, she said, “I was lucky enough two years ago” to be part of a volunteer medical and educational team to Yetebon, Ethiopia, with the Gundersen Medical Foundation’s Global Partners.
“I loved the area. It is probably one of three places in the world I find most peace-filled,” Farka said, flashing the wide smile that seems so ingrained in her that she probably even grins in her sleep. “The land is beautiful, and the people are friendly and grateful. It makes you appreciate every step of the day.”
Global Partners leaders, including administrative director Liz Arnold, so appreciated the talents that Farka brought to the venture that they picked her to lead a subsequent trip of volunteers to the African nation.
Embodies servant leadership
“Katie really embodies servant leadership, she is extremely competent as a nurse and she has a huge heart of compassion — qualities that make her perfect” for the mission role, Arnold said. “She has such a positive spirit and is willing to do anything.
“It is one thing to volunteer locally, but abroad, you have to be flexible and adaptable,” Arnold said.
“For anyone, leading a team is very different than being on a team, and you learn a lot about yourself,” she said.
Farka will remain at her Gundersen job through March before taking a little time off and heading nearly 8,000 miles to Ethiopia. Her volunteer stint this time will be with Project Mercy, which has a school, a hospital and a clinic, in Yetebon, a rural village about three hours from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
In assuming the outpost’s new position as community health development director, Farka will coordinate medical volunteers and students and do health assessments for the 1,500 students in the development’s K-12 schools. She plans to fold health education into the assessments.
“My passion here (at Gundersen) is patient education,” she said. “I’d love to be able to roll that into Project Mercy. Once you’ve taught kids, you’ve taught their families and then, you’ve taught the community.”
Not that Farka doesn’t need a little teaching herself, she acknowledged, noting that Ethiopian children start learning English in fifth grade but that their facility with it can be sketchy.
“I need to know Amharic,” she said of Ethiopia’s official language.
Some of her co-workers wonder about her venture, she said, adding, “They don’t understand why I would go somewhere not knowing anybody and not being paid.
“My family is on board, though — they know I’m crazy,” she said with a laugh that caromed off the walls of the expansive lobby in Gundersen’s Heritage Building and echoed up and down the circular staircase to floors above and below.
Besides, she said, Global Partners will send volunteer teams with familiar faces to Yetebon while she is there to help train staffers with Project Mercy, which has been a partner organization with Global Partners since 2014.
Without pay, Farka’s means of support includes family and friends, she said.
“People are helping finance support for me as a missionary. To my parents’ chagrin, that also means using my house money,” she said as a hint of mischief rippled through her laugh.
“I have a group of supporters — financial, prayer, whatever,” she said.
One worldly benefit will be free digs.
“Project Mercy has a compound with housing, so I will be living on the compound. They will cook for me and take care of me. It’ll be like moving in at mom’s, except better cooking — but don’t tell her that,” she said in a conspiratorial laugh that almost requires keeping the quote intact.
Despite Farka’s long-held dream of being a medical missionary, she said, “I got here and was so busy, I never found the right time to do it. This is a logical step to take.”
As a single person with the equivalent of a four-bedroom house, “it was time to downsize, and my family doesn’t live in the area,” she said.
“Project Mercy is an organization I would trust with my life and my career — and I am. It does everything carefully and prayerfully,” said Farka, whose mention of prayer several times during an interview reflected the faith she has absorbed as a lifetime member of Faith Free Church.
Sad to leave Gundersen
At the same time, she confessed that she will miss Gundersen and her co-workers.
“The only sad part is I’ve come to love Gundersen as an organization. It taught me everything I know and even stuff I don’t know,” she said, giggling as she added, “because I forgot.”
After the first year, Farka will come back to the United States to fill out work permit paperwork to be able to return for a second year, which she fully expects to do.
“My assumption is that a new position really needs a steady two years,” she said.
Farka credits Global Partners with teaching her the necessity for initiatives to become sustainable.
“When you teach people in a community, you give them the power to teach the community. The ideal is to work myself out of a job,” she said, punctuating the point with — of course — a hearty laugh.