Maria Vannicola’s passion for helping others and gaining perspective has taken her all over the world.
Vannicola, a K-State senior studying marketing, recently traveled to Costa Rica with 16 other college students to build a skate park in a poor community in the Central American country.
Vannicola, 21, said she was inspired to help build the skate park because of the experiences of her youth in Shawnee, Kansas.
“When I was a kid, I used to go skateboarding all the time with my brother,” she said. “It kept me away from doing other (dangerous) things.” The project was led by energy drink company Red Bull, the foundation of professional skateboarder Ryan Sheckler, and social activist groups Journey and DIVERTcity. The groups chose Vannicola because of her life experience and her promotion of local business and recycling used materials for her small business on campus.
The group was in Costa Rica from March 31 to April 5. They spent three days working on the skate park in San Jose and then met with people in the community, she said.
“It was the coolest experience I’ve ever had,” she said. “It was cool to actually make an impact there, because that skate park is going to be there for years.
“Once you meet the people it’s so different. (It helps you realize) you’re actually helping humans instead of the idea of helping,” she added.
Back home in Manhattan, Vannicola works for Eastside and Westside Markets, which sell fresh fruits and vegetables among other items. She said she loves working for the markets because of the promotion of local produce.
She also owns a small clothing line called Broke Girl Chokers, which consists of items she makes from thrifted and recycled fabrics. She said she used to sew all the time when she was younger, and one of her roommates is in K-State’s apparel and textiles program, which inspired her to pick up the hobby again. The business began one night when she wore a homemade choker, a tight necklace made with recycled denim, and someone saw it and offered to buy one from her.
“I went off that idea because I have a ton of thrifted denim and other fabrics because I trade my clothes at thrift shops,” she said. “I started making denim chokers, and I have been selling them around campus. It’s pretty fun to see people wearing them.”
Vannicola said she enjoys working at the markets for the same reason she started her clothing line.
“I think with fast fashion, fast food and fast everything we’re losing anything that’s real, valuable or homemade,” she said. “It just really caught my eye to bring me back to Kansas and be present where I am.”
Lydia Lobmeyer, who works for Red Bull and is Vannicola’s friend, nominated her for the trip to Costa Rica. She said Vannicola is a good example of someone who promotes her community and wants to help others.
“(The trip) was directed toward people who have a social impact on their community, and Maria definitely does,” she said. “She’s very passionate about anything she puts her mind to.”
Vannicola also recently spent a couple of months traveling the world. She traveled to nine states on the west coast, then to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
“I was just trying to gain perspective and find what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “I feel like being from Kansas I am very sheltered in a way.”
She said when she graduates she wants to do something in photography or graphic design. But the trip to Costa Rica may tweak it a bit, as she hopes to continue to work with Journey in a graphic design internship focused on social work.
She said she’s always been interested in photography and art as well as helping people, and she’s been able to do that in Manhattan and beyond.
“I try to do both,” she said. “I’m super artsy, and I think, ‘There has to be art here,’ and I found it.”