Ohio University graduate Niki VanNest will be taking her camera, her writing abilities and her desire to help others on a missionary trip to Mexico this week.
Photo courtesy of: Niki VanNest
Niki VanNest is pictured with a child at an orphanage in Zimbabwe where she participated in missionary work when she was 17 years old.
Photo courtesy of: Niki VanNest
Jan 30, 2014
By Jill Wallenhorst
Ohio University graduate Niki VanNest has a big heart, and she’s about to take the skills she developed at OHIO’s Athens and Zanesville campuses and her passion for helping others on a missionary trip to Mexico.
“I love helping people, and my ultimate goal in life is to help people in any way that I can,” said VanNest. “That’s why I’m a missionary.”
A resident of Crooksville, Ohio, VanNest will leave for San Marcos, Mexico, this week, traveling with a group of adults and teenagers from the Zanesville Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. The group will spend nearly a week helping with a construction project for the Face of My Father Children’s Home, leading outreach efforts to local senior citizens and engaging in other activities of service to residents in that area.
“We will be doing a lot of concrete work (at the children’s home), several hours’ worth nearly every day of the trip,” VanNest explained. “I know that our work will be a blessing to the children’s home simply because it will be one less task for them to complete on their own amidst their efforts to care for children in the area.”
A 2012 graduate of Ohio University, VanNest began her college years in 2005 at OHIO’s Zanesville Campus with the hopes of obtaining an education that she could tie in with her missionary work around the world.
“I went to Ohio University to learn the skills that would enable me to become a journalist and photojournalist,” said VanNest. “I’m going to Mexico to help people through my work, through my photos, and through my writing.”
Events in her personal life along with financial hardships made college more of a struggle for VanNest than it does for some students and extended the time it took for her to complete her degree. For financial reasons and to allow greater flexibility in scheduling her class and family time, VanNest split her college years between OHIO’s Athens and Zanesville campuses. It was that flexibility combined with her determination, faith and guidance from OHIO’s faculty and staff that allowed VanNest to graduate from the University with a Bachelor of Specialized Studies degree in Journalism, English and Visual Communication.
Stan Alost, an associate professor in and interim director of OHIO’s School of Visual Communication, was VanNest’s faculty advisor and helped her develop an academic plan that led to her bachelor of specialized studies degree. VanNest credits Alost with saving her degree, but Alost is quick to give credit to VanNest’s perseverance, describing her as one of the most strong-willed students he has ever seen.
“Niki is a special person who did not follow a straight path through college, and her issues would have stopped many a lesser person,” said Alost. “She has always had a smile, a warm greeting and a deep sense of finding a path and career that would allow her to help others."
VanNest is no stranger to missionary work. In fact, the trip to Mexico will be her third missionary trip.
She took her first missionary trip to Alaska when she was 13 years old. Initially envisioning that trip as an opportunity to feed her “Nat Geo nerd” within, VanNest said once she was in Alaska she realized a deeper beauty of the trip that went past simply seeing a new place.
“I fell in love with the idea of being able to help people in that way – to travel to their native land, their region, their home – and to help them as needed.”
While Alaska may have been the trip that exposed VanNest to her first missionary experience, it was her second trip at age 17 that made her realize that this was what God was calling on her to do.She traveled to Zimbabwe and worked in an orphanage.
“As soon as I set foot in Zimbabwe, I knew in my ‘God-gut’ that I was precisely where I was meant to be,” she explained. “It was such a peaceful understanding that fell over me that I knew it was as God intended, and I was abundantly happy.”
VanNest has been doing missionary and volunteer work ever since. She spends time volunteering at places like Good Works in Athens, homeless shelters and with Habitat for Humanity. VanNest even has experience volunteering with the Special Olympics.
Charles Savage is an assistant professor of fine arts on the Zanesville Campus who also serves as the choir director there. VanNest was a member of the choir and was mentored by Savage as an OHIO student. Savage describes VanNest as the perfect person for missionary work “because of her compassion for the human race.”
“She sees the best in people and tries to bring those qualities out in each person, so that they shine,” said Savage.
Much of VanNest’s missionary efforts are funded on her own, and while she has come up with enough money for her latest trip, she is accepting donations to supplement aid efforts in San Marcos, Mexico, missionary team needs and to help support the Face of My Father Children’s Home. Anyone interested in supporting VanNest’s efforts may contact her at email@example.com.
VanNest dreams to someday have her own column, “Good People,” in which she tells the stories of all the people she meets, and does so with a positive spin that she feels is often lacking in today’s news. VanNest noted that her time at Ohio University and the education she received will play a large role in making this happen.
“My time at OU definitely prepared me for that line of work because I learned to seek out the truth in every story, to build up the ultimate lead, to shoot the right image to not only enhance the words penned but also tell the story of its own, and to know a ‘good’ story when I find it,” she said.
Regardless of the stories she finds, it is clear that if the column “Good People” existed today, VanNest and her story would make for the perfect fit.