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Article updated: 6/21/2013 9:37 AM

Vernon Hills man leaves family for two-year Peace Corps tour in Lesotho


Travis Wohlrab will miss watching his favorite Chicago sports teams. He will miss burritos from his favorite restaurant. And, of course, he'll miss family and friends.

But Wohlrab left his Vernon Hills home June 5 and looked forward to traveling 8,500 miles to help people less fortunate for the next two years through the Peace Corps.

Wohlrab, 25, began to research the Peace Corps in eighth grade when his social studies teacher told him about the organization.

"It's a way when you're young and able bodied to give something back to your nation," he said. "You cannot only serve your country, but also serve people in a humanitarian aspect that are much less fortunate than we are."

His desire to help others began as a child helping his grandfather, a founding member of the Men's Club of St. Mary of Vernon Catholic Church. Wohlrab said he remembers helping at the fish fry or volunteering at PADS shelters. He's also worked with Sharing Hands, an organization that collects and delivers furniture to needy families.

"From then, I got the sense that I do have it better than other people, and that was my way to give back. It stuck with me," he said. "The Peace Corps fits that mold, just more on an international level than a local level."

After graduating from Southern Illinois University in 2011 with a degree in information systems technology, Wohlrab took a job at Maine West High School as IT coordinator. Last year, after taking time to save money to pay student loans, he began the application process to join the Peace Corps.

Through the extensive online application, the organization uses the information to determine if applicants are suited for Peace Corps, he said. Based on his skill set, he expected to be offered a position using his computer skills.

What he didn't realize, he said, was they also saw his community development skills through his work with PADS, Sharing Hands, coaching baseball for Vernon Hills Park District and helping at Vernon Hills High School baseball camp for eight years.

Last December, he received an invitation to travel to Lesotho in southern Africa to implement a new program called Healthy Youth. Specifically, Wohlrab will educate youth about HIV prevention.

"That's what I love about the Peace Corps is they don't let you pick and choose to go anywhere. You have to be flexible to go anywhere," he said.

About the size of Maryland with 2.2 million people, Lesotho has the third highest HIV infection rate in the world and is in epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, Wohlrab said. What surprised him was 85 percent of the country is literate.

"We will not tell them how to live but how their cultural norms are adversely affecting their HIV infection rate," he said. "We are working with youth to help them to make better life decisions."

His main objective will be working in schools daily to teach youth HIV prevention. Time will be spent on community development, he said, adding, "if you keep the kids occupied, they are less likely to make poor decisions."

Using his knowledge of technology, he also hopes to teach skills such as using Microsoft Office, composing email and searching the Web effectively.

"I will be helping these young children in this country hopefully gain some employability skills that will later assist them in life, making them more marketable for a job," he said.

The Peace Corps provides cost of travel and a monthly stipend based on local standard of living. "They want to ensure the volunteers live at the same level as the people they are working with to create equality."

Wohlrab said there was some trepidation about his assignment. But after talking to volunteers, he learned the Peace Corps has worked in Lesotho since 1967 and the residents respect the volunteers.

"It puts pressure on me. They anticipate you to perform at whatever expectations they have," he said. "But I realize they are an understanding culture. They will embrace whatever I can bring to them."

There also is concern leaving his family and friends for two years.

"At the same time, they respect and they understand what I'm doing is for the greater good," he said. "It's only two years. It's only half the college term."

He will miss the small things, such as enjoying a barbecue or watching football on Sundays.

"I look forward to break out of that pattern and finding new things to do with my time," he said. "Being in IT, I'm not dependent on technology, but I'm consumed with it all day long. Going to the mountains of Africa will remove most of that, not all of it. It will make me a stronger person."

Wohlrab will bring some technology to teach and to stay in touch back home.

"Believe it or not, they have cell towers with Internet," he said. "There is no running water. There is no plumbing infrastructure. There is no electrical grid or phone line grid, but like other nations in Africa they leapfrogged that whole generation of infrastructure and now are building cell towers."

While there, Wohlrab also plans to enjoy what the country offers, such as visiting Madagascar. Being an avid golfer, he also hopes to play a round at Kruger National Park, which features a professional golf course in South Africa.

Wohlrab is equally excited to stay in touch with students back home. Through a Peace Corps program called Worldwide Schools, Wohlrab will share videos, projects and create communication between students at Maine West and the school where he's assigned in Lesotho.

"We're bridging a gap between two classrooms," he said.

Going to Africa, Wohlrab said he is keeping a realistic mindset. He does not expect to eliminate the AIDS epidemic but hopes to make a small difference.

"Even if that's a few people in the community, it's a success," he said.

Learn more about his travels through a blog Wohlrab has created, blog.pcharpoon.com.

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