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Larry and JoAnn Lawinger of Maple Grove, Minn., congratulate St. Scholastica nursing student Felipe Zetina of Mexico after giving him his nursing pin during a pinning ceremony for nurses at Mitchell Auditorium in Duluth on Friday afternoon. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

St. Scholastica nursing grad to volunteer at children’s home in Mexico

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As a nursing graduate from the College of St. Scholastica, Felipe Zetina knows he could get a good job.

“In the first place, they prefer males,” the Mexico City native said matter-of-factly as he began ticking off the advantages on his resume. “Second, I have a double major: psych and nursing. Third, plus Spanish, my French is pretty decent.”

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But, after graduating today, the 28-year-old Zetina soon will return for a year to volunteer as a nurse at Casa San Salvador, a home to hundreds of Mexican children in Miacatlan, a village that’s about 80 miles south of Mexico City.

The children are living the life he once lived.

“I don’t think it’s about the money, I think it’s about doing what I love,” Zetina said during an interview Friday backstage at Scholastica’s Mitchell Auditorium. He was sitting next to his Minnesota dad and mom, Larry and JoAnn Lawinger of Maple Grove, who would be “pinning” Zetina during a nursing graduation ceremony soon afterwards.

Zetina’s mother left the family when he was 2, he said, and his father was an alcoholic. When he was 14, an aunt contacted NPH International — the letters stand for “Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos” (“Our Little Brothers and Sisters”). Founded in 1954 by a Catholic priest, the charity now cares for more than 3,000 orphans in Mexico and eight other Latin American countries.

Zetina, who lived in one home during middle school and another during high school, doesn’t describe them as orphanages. None of the children is given up for adoption, he said. NPH supports its kids all the way through college in Mexico, if they choose college.

“It’s a family,” Zetina said in fluent but heavily accented English. “And everyone who comes to visit, they always become part of that family.”

Zetina considered going into accounting like his younger brother, he said, but realized he was attracted to the medical profession. That brought him to Duluth 5½ years ago after he won a scholarship offered by the estate of Elizabeth Graznow, a St. Scholastica nursing alumna who had volunteered at NPH.

After Zetina was accepted, the phone rang in the Lawingers’ home. A student from an NPH home in Mexico was coming to St. Scholastica to study nursing. Would they be willing to serve as his home base?

“I think it took us about one minute to decide,” JoAnn Lawinger said.

The Lawingers have been involved in NPH for almost 20 years, and they’ve traveled to the various NPH homes as part of an international advisory board. Plus, their five sons were about the same age as Zetina.

“He’s our sixth son,” Larry Lawinger said. “He fit right in.”

In addition to his studies at St. Scholastica, Zetina participated in spring break missions and helped at the Safe Haven shelter. He made weekly visits to the youth at the Arrowhead Juvenile Center.

It’s easy to imagine the burly, affable Zetina as a kid magnet.

“A lot of them come from dysfunctional families like me,” he said. “They feel more comfortable talking to someone who can understand them better.”

While volunteering in the children’s clinic at Casa San Salvador, Zetina plans also to prepare for med school entrance exams, with a goal of becoming a pediatrician.

“I’m just glad that I’m going to be able to give back a little bit of what I’ve received,” he said. “That’s going to be my biggest satisfaction.”

The Lawingers were experiencing parental pangs knowing their “sixth son” soon would be far away.

“It’s sort of a sad thing and a sweet thing all at the same time,” Larry Lawinger said, fighting to control his emotions. “I’m going to miss him when he’s gone.”

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