Editor’s Note: This is one in the Sentinel’s “Where Are They Now?” series about Ramona graduates — where they are and what they are doing.
By Karen Brainard
Passionate about storytelling and highlighting social issues through film, Laurel Gwizdak has embarked on a journey that has taken her from Ramona to urban centers and remote villages overseas, including one in Ukraine, and has ultimately landed her in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I think I’ve found a home in providing these participatory filmmaking tools to young people,” the 2001 Ramona High School graduate said.
Gwizdak serves as education director of a small organization called Reel Works that helps youths from under-served neighborhoods by teaching them how to create a documentary. The youths, mostly high school-aged, are paired with a professional filmmaker. The students learn everything from how to operate a camera to developing a story structure that will engage audiences.
“It’s really honing their craft and telling their story in a way that’s really successful with a wider audience,” said Gwizdak. “Oftentimes these are students who don’t fit the mold. It’s something I can identify with. I didn’t really in high school either.”
Influenced by some of her teachers at Ramona Community Montessori School, Olive Peirce Middle School and Ramona High School, Gwizdak knew she wanted to be in a creative field. She enjoyed storytelling, so after high school graduation she focused on film at San Francisco State University. There, she was exposed to human rights issues throughout the world and was touched by the disparity in lives.
“You hear a lot about what’s going on in the world there,” she said. “For someone from such a small town it was very eye-opening to me to see so much of what was going on outside of this country.”
Desiring to see and experience firsthand the cultural and economic differences, Gwizdak joined the Peace Corps after earning her undergraduate degree. Following training, she was assigned to a poor, rural village in Ukraine that was “incredibly cold.”
“We had a bucket for the bathroom outside in a shed,” she said. “There wasn’t any hot water and the weather was really different than California.”
Temperatures could dip to negative 20 degrees and there was a lot of snow, she added.
Her work focused on program development for at-risk youth. She helped build a youth center and introduced healthy lifestyles, including activities such as yoga and ultimate frisbee. Gwizdak also educated them on human trafficking and HIV/Aids.
“At the time, Ukraine had the highest growth of HIV infection in the world,” she said.
Some girls in Ukraine were enticed to work in a restaurant in another country but were then forced into sexual slavery, noted Gwizdak.
“There’s such a desperation,” she said, adding that young people have little hope for the future.
Gwizdak was in Ukraine for three years and quickly learned the country’s language. She was the first American in that particular village and in the beginning the reception was mixed. The older generation from the Soviet Union has a perception about Americans, she said.
“At first, there was definitely a trust issue I had to overcome,” she noted. “The kids were a lot easier...were very excited.”
That’s when she realized she had to work with young people. “No matter where you go, they’re so energized by the possibility of being involved in something meaningful.”
Through a U.S. state department merit-based program, Gwizdak recruited young Ukrainians to come to the U.S. and learn the English language, culture and volunteer work. When they returned, she helped them apply what they had learned.
After three years in Ukraine, Gwizdak returned to the states and attended graduate school at George Washington University. Her field of study was international development and she focused her research on community media development, also called participatory filmmaking, with youths.
During that time she volunteered to make films for nonprofits. Halfway through graduate school, she partnered with an organization and spent a summer in Senegal, West Africa, developing a youth media program for girls.
“I was working with girls in a village where there was no electricity and no one had ever even seen a movie because it was so rural. And we were actually making movies,” she said.
Following graduate school Gwizdak worked as a freelance producer for the Public Broadcast System (PBS), creating feature-length documentaries on hot topics in the Washington D.C./Maryland area. She enjoyed the work and said that at the end of a project she felt a lot of empathy and understanding for all sides of the issue.
“That was a really helpful process for me,” she noted.
Although she loved freelancing, Gwizdak said she needed a permanent job. Her search took her to Reel Works in August 2012.
“Ideally I love working collaboratively with young people,” she said. “They teach so much.”
While teenagers are often seen as troublemakers, Gwizdak said, “I see the total opposite. I see so much potential that is often untapped.”
Readers with the name of a Ramona graduate for the “Where Are They Now?” series may email email@example.com or call 760-789-1350.