MADISON (WKOW) -- Ara Alonso was not aware there would be a winner at the Jefferson Awards Gala, much less that it would be her.
"I thought I just was coming to celebrate with everyone," Alonso said. "I'm the happiest person. This is very, very special to me. The work I do and this recognition is just amazing."
Judges chose Alonso as the 2013 Jefferson Award winner on Wednesday evening for her healthcare work in Africa.
Alonso was one of 12 volunteers WKOW featured over the past year.
Alonso started a program called Health by Motorbike, which delivers medical supplies to African villages via motorcycles. A registered nurse and professor of gender and women's studies at UW-Madison, Alonso brings 12 students to travel with her to Africa for three weeks each year and to teach African women about various health topics.
During her next trip in May, Alonso said she is also bringing a librarian "because we're opening the first library on the whole border of Kenya and Tanzania," she said, specifying, "it's a health library."
WKOW has featured a monthly Jefferson Award winner for the past four years. And each year in March, judges choose a public servant to represent WKOW and the Madison area in the National Ceremonies in Washington.
Founded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, U.S. Sen. Robert Taft, Jr. and Sam Beard, the Jefferson Awards are known as the Nobel Prize of public service.
Alonso said she was too overwhelmed by her local win to estimate her chances of a national victory. However, two out of three of WKOW's previous national nominees have gone on to become recipients of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for outstanding public service benefiting local communities.
MADISON (WKOW) -- One Madison woman has made it her life's mission to help families in Africa.
Now she's taking UW-Madison students along on her journey.
That's why WKOW is honoring Ara Alonso as February's Jefferson Award Winner.
She has battled polio since she was a baby.
Despite weakness in her step, Ara was determined to make an impact on the world.
She traveled to Africa and toured the villages of southeast Kenya.
Ara found extreme poverty, sickness and children who were suffering.
"They have no concept of life expectancy because if they get sick, they die. They have no treatment, they have no way."
So she decided to give them a way..
In 2009, she started a program called Health by Motorbike, delivering medical supplies and basic necessities to African villages on motorcycles.
But it quickly grew to more than that.
As a registered nurse, and professor of gender and women's studies at UW-Madison, Ara knew these women needed to learn about their health in order to survive and take care of their own families.
She knew her students could help.
So she developed a program at the university, that allows 12 students to travel with her to Africa for 3 weeks each year.
They earn class credit by teaching the women.
"Last time it was maternal health, neo-natal health, nutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, reproductive health in general. This time they want to talk about domestic violence more, how to prevent rape in the villages," says Ara.
She and her students work very hard to get ready for their trip.
From January to May they research health topics, come up with curriculum to teach the women and prepare for a life with no electricity or running water.
"It's three weeks of very, very intense work there. And it's really almost 24 hours a day working," she says.
They share their knowledge with groups of 12 to 20 women that travel to their base in Lunga Lunga, from surrounding villages.
Those women then train their own communities throughout the year.
"We give them a diploma afterward and this diploma is from UW-Madison. So for these women having a diploma that comes from the university as a health trainer is something unbelievable."
In just four years, the program has reached 60,000 people living in southeast Kenya.
Ara says, "It's really bringing the UW to places that are very isolated and where women, men, and children can benefit from this knowledge."
But it's also given life lessons to the students involved.
Joe Shook was the first male student in the program.
"I grew to really appreciate the impact of women's health from a male perspective because it's not just a female issue."
Health by Motorbike runs solely on grants and small donations and a little goes a long way.
Last year, with only $6,000, Ara was able to purchase land and build a medical center from the ground up.
That center has saved countless lives.
Ara says, "My teaching is my activism but it has to go much farther than that."
"She's just so passionate about her work and that of her students and she genuinely, genuinely cares about us," says UW graduate Kathleen Grabowski.
Ara's next goal is to start an emergency service to help transport people from the outlying villages to the main clinic to get help.
She's already purchasing motorcycles for that effort.
You can find out more about health by motorbike and how to donate by clicking here.
If you know someone who is making a big impact and is deserving of a Jefferson Award, email Amber Noggle directly at email@example.com.