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Webster Post
  • Jim Nowak, retired local teacher, dies in Kenyan crash

  • A former teacher and humanitarian has died in Kenya, working to better the schools and health services there.



    Jim Nowak, 59, a retired social studies teacher at Fairport High School was killed in a car crash in Kenya Friday morning. Since his retirement, he spent time building schools and a health clinic.

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  • A former teacher and humanitarian has died in Kenya, working to better the schools and health services there.
    Jim Nowak, 59, a retired social studies teacher at Fairport High School was killed in a car crash in Kenya Friday morning. Since his retirement, he spent time building schools and a health clinic.
    Nowak first became interested in Kenya after seeing a presentation on pain and poverty worldwide that is due to HIV and AIDS. That had turned into a journey to help.
    He was a teacher when he saw the presentation, narrated by actor Will Smith. Nowak was touched by the message and retired early to join the Peace Corps.
    “I found my way to Kenya,” he said in an April 2010 interview. “I didn’t want to work for someone else; I wanted to work for myself.”
    While in the eastern African country, he worked with a school principal whose classrooms were made of mud and cow dung. When the roof of one of the classrooms dismantled and fell apart and the walls melted without protection from the sweltering sun.
    More than 500 children — 180 of them HIV orphans — were learning in the small classrooms without windows or doors, under pieced-together roofs. These poor conditions inspired Nowak’s five-year journey to help rebuild and improve the classroom conditions for the children of Maseno.
    Nowak began by asking friends and family for help, collecting $5,000 to build a classroom. Two schools, in Virginia and Pennsylvania, collected money through fundraising operations, raising $13,000 and $5,000, respectively.
    Local schools caught on and have benefited Building Futures, Nowak’s 501(c)3, not-for-profit organization that benefits the venture in Kenya. Nowak operated Building Futures with Fairport natives Adam Jablonski and Steve Erickson.
    His friends and colleagues will always remember his outgoing friendliness and heart to help others in need.
    “He was compassion personified,” said Jablonski.
    Since his passing, Jablonski has received correspondence from a host of Nowak’s former students and friends from Kenya offering their sympathy.
    “The constant theme is that ‘I’m a better person because of Jim Nowak,’” he said through tears.
    Nowak taught at Fairport for more than 30 years, and founded the Students Against Drunk Driving chapter, Peace Club, and Brotherhood Week. He was also named Monroe County Teacher of the Year and Fulbright Scholar.
    More importantly, he developed a reputation for making outsiders feel accepted.
    “He was the first one to greet new teachers as they entered the building,” said art teacher Marcia Stiffer. “Once you met him, you were his friend forever.”
    She recalls the way he decorated his door with Christmas lights for the first day of school and spearheaded an effort to tie-die 500 T-shirts for Brotherhood Week without blinking. His high energy and determination were evident at a young age, as he was an all-county wrestler in high school and goalie for the Cornell NCAA division 1 championship lacrosse team in college.
    Page 2 of 2 - During one of Nowak's trips to Kenya, he helped build a new classroom that has Penfield's Indian Landing name and symbol adorned on the side. Last May, Nowak took a group of St. John Fisher College nursing students to Kenya to help in the health clinic that was being built.
    Nursing student Ashley Russell, who went on the trip, said Nowak was eager to introduce the students to the local people, and vice versa.
    “You could really tell he was passionate,” she said. “At dinnertime he would always be the one to make speeches and brag about us.”
    The clinic now houses a pharmacy, first aid center and a maternity wing; and will teach residents about first aid, pre and post-natal health, nutrition and lessons for healthy living.
    Nowak also helped fund and build 40 structures, including 30 classrooms, six restrooms, a library, a teacher’s room and a meeting hall — all a part of an effort to help where he could.
    In an April 2010 interview he said, “Nobody can do this by themselves, but we have done a lot.”
    He wasn't scheduled to come home until March, and Jablonski, who planned to meet Nowak in Kenya later this month, said he won’t cancel his plans.
    “He would be so mad at me if we didn’t keep going,” said Jablonski. “Building futures was his vision.”
    —Includes reporting by Bethany Young

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