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A study abroad program changed Heidi Vladyka's life and the lives of people in Mexico who need access to sustainable mobility.

Heidi Vladyka, '13, didn’t pick up a guitar until her mid-twenties. She knew almost nothing about photography but that didn’t stop her from buying a camera around the same time she started playing music. “I worked really, really hard,” said Vladyka. Her efforts paid off; within a year she was signed to a record label. Vladyka also found steady work as a freelance photographer for different organizations including the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center.

This was 10 years ago, when Vladyka was recently divorced and raising two small children. Vladyka’s mother had just passed away (her father died a few years earlier) and she was looking to make a change. Vladyka went to work straight out of high school but figured it was time to try college. “I just had this feeling that I couldn’t wait any longer,” she said. “I’ve always pushed myself to do things that seem scary and going to school was something that seemed really scary.”

Vladyka started at Bates Technical College before moving to Tacoma Community College. She transferred to UW Tacoma at the start of her junior year. “I really needed a flexible option for school because I was a single mom and had no family support,” said Vladyka.

Vladyka was recently named a recipient of the 2017 David Chow Foundation Humanitarian Awards. The foundation recognizes and honors individuals who help others.

The next few years were challenging. Vladyka took a job waiting tables at a local bar. She worked the late shift and often didn’t arrive back home until after midnight. Vladyka found an inventive way to make sure her children were cared for while she was working. “I had a sort of live-in nanny,” she said. “I rented out a room in my home for a low cost and, in exchange, the tenant would make sure my boys were safe and had everything they needed.”

This balancing act was common for Vladyka during this period. She was always juggling one priority or another. “I tried to take classes when my kids were in school or on nights when I didn’t work,” she said. “I was constantly thinking about how I could do this and still feel like an attentive parent.”

Vladyka majored in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences with a concentration in global studies. She minored in Spanish. “I knew I wanted to be an occupational therapist and that I wanted to work with the Spanish-speaking population but I wasn’t sure how those two fit together,” she said.

Vladyka grew up in Mossyrock, a small town in southwest Washington. While in high school she befriended an exchange student from Mexico. “She could speak English to me and I couldn’t speak Spanish to her,” said Vladyka. “I just thought her life and culture were interesting and wanted to know more.”

During her junior year at UW Tacoma Vladyka decided she wanted to study abroad in Mexico, but only if she could bring her children. “When I went to the study abroad office and said I wanted to bring my boys with me they said ‘that makes sense, let’s make it work,” said Vladyka. “This was the first time any school said yes to me about anything related to my kids.”Heidi Vladyka, '13, and her sons on a study abroad trip to Mexico.

Staff and faculty helped Vladyka arrange the trip to Mexico, which included finding a school her kids could attend. During the multi-week program, Vladyka and some of her fellow students would take weekend excursions to different parts of the country. On a visit to Oaxaca in Central Mexico Vladyka witnessed a moment that would forever change her life.

“We were walking through a market and a little girl who was selling gum ran over to check in with what appeared to be her grandmother or mother,” said Vladyka. “I assumed this woman was sitting cross-legged on the floor but then she pushed herself up and I saw the soup cans covering her residual stubs. She was a double amputee and was using the cans to protect her skin from the dirt. My kids looked at me and I didn’t have an answer for how to help this woman.”

When she returned to Tacoma, Vladyka started volunteering with the Woodinville-based nonprofit Push International. Push was co-founded by University of Puget Sound alumna Bree Milani with a mission to provide sustainable mobility—wheelchairs, walkers and canes—to individuals in Mexico. Vladyka served as a volunteer for three years and is now the vice president and director of international service learning. “I make four trips a year to Mexico,” she said. “I work onsite at a clinic in Mazatlán and provide free therapy to those who need it.”

Vladyka has turned her home garage into a de facto storage unit. “It is full of wheelchairs and wheelchair parts,” she said. “I collect wheelchairs from all over Washington State and once a year we load up a truck and send it down to Mexico.” The equipment is modified by a Push staff member based in Mazatlán and distributed to community members. Vladyka also oversees teams of students from the UPS School of Occupational Health on service trips to Mexico. Vladyka got her master’s in occupational health from UPS. “These trips fill multiple needs,” she said. “Students get hands-on experience and patients get quality care.”

Heidi Vladyka, '13, and students from California State University Dominguez Hills. Vladyka lead the students on a trip to Mexico in 2016. The students are sitting in wheelchairs they built for members of the community.

Push International is a volunteer-driven organization. Vladyka’s regular job is as an occupational therapist at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. “You set goals for yourself and sometimes life leads you in other places and sometimes it leads you right where you want to go,” she said.

Much has changed for Vladyka in the past ten years. Her willingness to take the first step, to overcome fear, has been a big reason for her success. The decision to embrace the unknown is a choice she made for herself and for her sons. “My kids have been with me the whole time,” she said. “They’ve seen how hard it’s been but I think it’s really important as a mom to follow your passion, because, if you follow your passion, even if it’s really hard, your kids will follow theirs and won’t stop when things get hard.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / January 3, 2018
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or