Part X: Meet Mara: A hard-working immigrant, passionate activist, and loving grandmother

By: Nicole Gorelik
Spring 2016 Communication Intern
Junior majoring in advertising and public relations

Pictured: Mara and her grandkids. From left to right: Nicole, Mara, Bryan

Take a moment and imagine abruptly fleeing your home country to settle in a place where everyone speaks a different language. Now imagine being 37 years old when you flee—leaving behind a familiar culture, lifestyle, routine and career. Welcome to the life of my tireless and committed grandmother, Mara Gozenpud.

The Chernobyl disaster, a devastating nuclear power plant explosion in Soviet Ukraine, about 12 miles from the Belarus border, occurred on April 26, 1986. The Ukraine authorities thought it best to keep the accident a secret from the Soviet people. Mara, who was living in Belarus at the time, first learned of the accident from family in America. This event, and the government corruption surrounding it, was Mara’s first realization that she needed to flee.

It’s estimated that Belarus received 60% of the contamination from Chernobyl. In the years following, Mara began seeing the profound health effects on the people of her country. There was no denying the increase in premature births and higher levels of cancer and birth defects after Chernobyl. This pushed her over the edge. Like an estimated 300,000 people who resettled elsewhere, she did not want to further expose her family to high amounts of radiation. Mara, along with her husband, parents, and daughter, made the difficult decision to pack their bags and leave. With Mara’s aunt and uncle already living in Milwaukee, the family decided to settle there as well.

Within a couple weeks of leaving her Eastern European home, Mara began learning English at a local synagogue. Soon after, she was hired full-time as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). She would eventually attend the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and graduate with her bachelor’s degree as a member of the first ever cohort of nursing students at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). Currently she works as a Registered Nurse Supervisor at Independence First, a nationally recognized community-based, non-residential Independent Living Center (CIL) for people with disabilities. Humble as she can be, Mara attributes all her success to her parents, daughter, husband and two grandkids.

“If I didn’t have such a supportive and loving family,” Mara says. “I would never have become as successful and happy as I am today.”

Mara spends her days working nine to five and does not plan on stopping anytime soon. She has been an outspoken anti-ageism activist for as long as she can remember and has traveled to Washington, DC and Madison to speak out against age discrimination in the workplace. Ageism, according to Argentum, a company serving as a voice for residents of senior living communities, is a form of discrimination or prejudice experienced by older adults. Ageism occurs in the workplace, on TV, and in a variety of other places. With the population growing older and living longer, many older adults are retiring later than previous generations.

“Society is very unfair,” Mara says. “If a person is 50 or older, they fear losing their job. They know that getting hired elsewhere is highly unlikely. Companies would rather hire someone ‘young and fresh’ than ‘old and experienced.’”

Along with being an anti-ageism advocate, Mara also fights for wage increases for specialists working in geriatrics, a social science or medical branch that deals with older adults. According to Pew Research Projections, by 2030 one out of five Americans will be over the age of 65. These demographics, along with changes in the health care environment, are driving demand for people trained in working with older adults. Analysts predict over 900,000 jobs in gerontology in upcoming years. Unfortunately our society is not prepared for the large number of older adults in the future. Salaries for those in the field of aging are at an all-time low. A May Institutes of Medicine report estimates there will only be about 8,000 geriatricians by 2030, which has a lot to do with low compensation for hard work. Mara strongly believes that higher salaries would attract more people to this growing and underserved field.

Mara is by definition a hard worker. But when she’s not being a passionate activist or a devoted nurse, Mara enjoys cooking, especially Russian cuisine, and spending time with her family. Her favorite thing to make is, “anything my grandkids want,” Mara proclaimed.

In regards to her own aging, at 61 years old, Mara’s secret to longevity is a constant upbeat attitude and a genuine gratefulness for everything she has.

“I don’t let my age limit me,” Mara says. “It really is merely a number.”