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Service-learning with epilepsy group gives student the chance to give back

| Alison Wagener

Living with a neurological disorder is rarely an easy task. But embracing your disorder to help others with similar circumstances? That's truly inspiring. 

Difficult as it may seem, it's the lifelong passion of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior Nichole Gervenak. 

When she was diagnosed with epilepsy as a child, Gervenak and her family were left with many questions about the central nervous system disorder.

"My family knew that epilepsy meant seizures, but there is such a variety of other impacts that this diagnosis can have that they wanted to be completely informed," Gervenak said.

The Epilepsy Foundation was able to provide the information necessary for Gervenak and her family to feel comfortable with the diagnosis. 

The foundation is a nonprofit organization focused on helping those with epilepsy and their families feel supported and informed about the disorder. Dedicated to serving the epilepsy community, the organization is a leader in the fight to stop seizures and SUDEP — sudden unexpected death in epilepsy, which occurs in more than one out of 1,000 cases of epilepsy each year. 

The organization also helps those with epilepsy overcome challenges created by the disorder through education, advocacy and research to accelerate new ideas into therapy.  

Growing up with epilepsy herself, Gervenak understands these challenges. But instead of letting them defeat her, she has channeled her energy into something else: giving her time and effort to those in the epilepsy community by joining the work of the Epilepsy Foundation.  

Gervenak, a senior biology major and chemistry minor from Baxter, Minnesota, began working with the Epilepsy Foundation of Western Wisconsin as a way to fulfill her UW-Eau Claire service-learning requirement. But as her 15 hours came and went, she found herself too attached to the organization to leave.  

Now she has an internship with the Foundation, working as a volunteer office manager for the branch. 

"By having epilepsy myself, I have found my work with the Epilepsy Foundation to be very intriguing," Gervenak said. "Being here has allowed me to help so many people, even those with extreme cases, get through their daily lives. It's given me a better understanding of the thoughts and fears that they have."

As office manager, Gervenak is responsible for managing donations to the Foundation, organizing a vast variety of events put on in coordination with companies and local businesses and attending all of those events. She also maintains the organization's Facebook page and newsletter, researching newly released drugs and therapies to keep readers informed.

Not only is the experience personally rewarding for Gervenak, but it's also preparing her for her future. After graduating from UW-Eau Claire, she aims to attend pharmacy school and eventually work with pharmaceutical companies on developing new drugs and therapies for central nervous system disorders.

"Just in the few short months of working here, I have gained so much knowledge about the vast types of epilepsy and how each patient with epilepsy is a unique case for their doctor," Gervenak said. "It has also given me an opportunity to learn about some amazing technology and new drug therapies that are being developed for epilepsy, and I've even met some of the people involved in that work." 

Most important to Gervenak is knowing she can help others through the struggles that she knows all too well.

"The personal reward of knowing that you are helping someone get through challenges that would otherwise seem impossible, maybe even in the smallest way, is amazing," Gervenak said. "The knowledge and skills that I'm gaining from volunteering with the Epilepsy Foundation are irreplaceable, and I feel so extremely blessed and fortunate to be able to help." 

All of this from the perfect service-learning placement and a lot of determination.