Moline is less than 175 miles from the Chicago suburb where she grew up, but Annisa Wanat took a long way to get to get there, traveling by way of Bulgaria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, working to make the world a better place.
Wanat now is program director for the Moline office of Global Communities, a nonprofit organization based in Maryland. She opened the office in 2015, under a three-year contract by the John Deere Foundation to help people in the mostly Hispanic Floreciente neighborhood to reinvigorate the area and improve their lives.
Since then, much has been accomplished. Eight women have gotten training for better-paying jobs. Twenty-five middle school students have developed educational plants to help them succeed in college. Homes have been repaired through low-cost loans. A crumbling sidewalk that children use to walk to school has been repaired.
For shepherding these projects, Wanat has been chosen by River Action Inc., Davenport, as one of two recipients for a 2018 Eddy Award in the category of revitalization.
The Eddys are given annually to individuals and organizations that have gone against the current to get things done, accomplishing outstanding riverfront activity or development. They will be presented Friday at the annual Fish & Fire fundraiser, to be held this year at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport.
The other revitalization recipient, Maria Ontiveros, was picked for her work with Mercado on Fifth, a weekly outdoor market in downtown Moline.
Wanat's interest in international affairs began early-on. She jokes that it may have been influenced by watching "M*A*S*H," a television show that aired from 1972-83, following a team of doctors stationed in South Korea during the Korean War. Although a comedy, "M*A*S*H" included serious, dramatic subject material with a moralistic message.
Another influence was her family; an aunt and uncle were among the first-ever Peace Corps volunteers, and another relative was an escapee from East Germany.
"There are a lot of people in my life who have always gone against the current," she said.
Sitting in an office at 1316 4th Ave., the walls taped with schedules and to-do lists, Wanat recounted her early years: Graduating from Miami University, in Ohio; becoming a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English, social studies and and economics in Bulgaria; enrolling in Indiana University, Bloomington, for a master's degree in public affairs and Russian/East European studies.
Fluent in Bulgarian, she landed a job with a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that encourages political participation and civil society strengthening in emerging democracies. For her, that was Bulgaria, Macedonia and Kosovo.
In 2008, after two years back in Chicago, she set out for Afghanistan, a war zone that had been a war zone for decades. She worked about 1½ years each in Kabul and Hirat.
An obstacle she had to overcome was the preconceived idea of people she spoke to on the telephone that she was "one of them" because of her name, Annisa, which is common in Mideast countries.
When she arrived in person, and they saw that she had blonde hair and blue eyes, "they were so disappointed," she said. "And I had to say, 'Yeah, I'm Polish.'"
(When pressed, Wanat explained that her mother got the name Annisa from the 1966-71 television sitcom "Family Affair" starring child actor Annisa Jones as Buffy.)
Regardless of eye color and inability to speak the language of Afghanistan, Wanat said winning trust is the same wherever you go — you figure out who has influence, and then you talk to them, through a translator or one-on-one.
"The Afghan people are incredibly welcoming," she said. "And they are like anybody anywhere in the world. They want an education for their kids, they want a job that pays the bills, they want a clean, safe house to live in and they want a government that works for them."
During her time in Afghanistan, Wanat was fortunate that she was not injured. Several of her colleagues were not so lucky.
Her last overseas job was her most dangerous post, working in South Sudan.
The predominantly Christian section of South Sudan voted for independence in 2011, a step toward becoming a new country. "It was an exciting idea, and it was a reality for a year," she said. "Then I saw the writing on the wall."
Ethnic violence increased, spiraling toward civil war. Being poor makes it easy to fight because there is nothing to lose, she said.
Wanat returned to Albany Park, an ethnically diverse Chicago neighborhood where she owns a condominium with her sister, and immediately found a new cause.
The alderman of her ward had decided to retire after 40 years and "give the position to his daughter," Wanat said, meaning that the party's power was so entrenched that no one else stood a chance against his pick.
"And that annoyed me," she said.
She decided to run for city council, knocking on doors and talking to people about potholes and property taxes.
She didn't win, but just about then, the Moline job came open. "It was a perfect match," she said.
Bill Ratzburg, economic development planning director for the John Deere Foundation, agrees.
"Anissa is a very good thinker about what is needed to make a thing a success," he said. "She has a natural ability to relate to people and a personal desire to improve people's lives. It's in every cell in her body. She cares endlessly for the betterment of those around her."