Peruvian perspective

May 26, 2006

How an Engineer found meaning and perspective for her life while giving a little piece of her heart to a boy in Peru.

Ann Marie Weitzel '99 was a little disillusioned with her career and looking for more meaning in her life when serendipity intervened and introduced her to Jorge, a charmer with luminous brown eyes and a fetching smile.

This Peruvian dreamboat was one of 10 orphaned infants Weitzel helped care for during a two-month volunteer abroad experience with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), an international not-for-profit organization with volunteer sites in 10 countries.

Weitzel was a successful career woman working for Sun Microsystems when she read an article about a newspaper editor who volunteered to teach English to Buddhist monks in Thailand for CCS. "Her company supported her volunteerism," said Weitzel, "and she didn't have to give up her job to do something meaningful. Something clicked in my head and I thought 'I can do this too,'" she said.

"I was looking for something more meaningful to do with my life. I had realized success was not based on material wealth," she said. "I know there are a lot of sources out there telling you that, but I think it's something you have to realize on your own.

"At first I was nervous about what people would think," Weitzel admitted. "I was afraid they would see it as bailing out and wonder what was wrong with me that I would leave a successful career in a field where there had been waves of lay-offs."

Sun Microsystems is a producer of computer software and hardware with a vision to develop technologies that power the world's most important markets. Weitzel, a Manufacturing Engineering major at Kettering University, had worked as a co-op employee at Standard Products during college. After meeting Marissa Peterson '83, executive vice president at Sun, at a Kettering event, she applied to work for Sun after graduation.

In the five years following the dot com bubble burst and subsequent downsizing at Sun, she not only kept her job, she received a number of promotions during this time. This added to the worry that her decision to take time off to volunteer would be criticized, or worse, cost Weitzel her job.

"But it felt right," she said. So she forged ahead and told her husband, Braden Robison '98, another Kettering alum about what she wanted to do. "He was very supportive, so I started telling my family and friends." Their approval and support encouraged her to tell her manager at work. "If he wasn't supportive I was willing to quit," she said explaining how important it was for her to do this volunteer project.

Her manager said her request for time off was do-able and so Weitzel applied to CCS. Her first choice was to work on a project in India, but cost and distance from home became deciding factors and she wound up in Ayacucho, a town in the mountains of Peru, helping out with Jorge and nine other orphans in September and October of 2005.

She chose CCS because "they weren't trying to impose ideas of what was needed in a community, they worked with the community to identify their needs. That appealed to me," she said.

She thinks she was assigned to work with orphans under the age of one because of her skills assessment for CCS. "They asked if I could cook, had any teaching experience or could speak a foreign language - I said no, no and no, so I was assigned to the orphanage to work with babies who couldn't talk yet," she said.

The orphanage, overseen by a group of Catholic nuns, was founded to take in children orphaned by the Shining Path, a Maoist guerilla insurgent organization in Peru, preferring to be called the Communist Party of Peru. "Now it exists more because of extreme poverty and families not having resources to take care of their children," Weitzel said.

The baby room was part of a larger unit that housed only girls. "Normally there were 10 babies and two caregivers," Weitzel said. "From the standpoint of basic needs they were well cared for, but it was little like a production line just to get everyone fed, diapered and dressed every day."

"It was my job to give them one-on-one attention the regular caregivers didn't have time for," she said, "it was the best job ever!" Knowing what her assignment was, Weitzel did some reading on infant development prior to arriving in Peru. "I worked with them doing exercises for their developmental stages," she said. "The regular caregivers didn't encourage mobility out of necessity - too many little people to have rolling and crawling with only two adults on hand."

Weitzel developed a special bond with Jorge. "He would light up and become very animated when an adult would pick him up," she said. "I could see he had something special about him." The day before she left Peru, Jorge rewarded her work with him by sitting up on his own.

"I know he'll never remember me," she said, "but I did something for him that will have a lasting affect on his development. It wasn't just making a product for a company, it was touching someone's life."

After leaving the orphanage Weitzel traveled in Peru for a week before returning home. Her thoughts kept returning to the little charmer in the mountains. "I thought about him every day and wondered what his day was like," she said. "There was something special in his eyes, he'll always be a part of my heart."

Her attachment to Jorge was so strong, Weitzel researched adoption laws in Peru thinking she could take that little piece of her heart home with her to the U.S. But Peru has very strict adoption laws, she found, allowing only Peruvians and those of Peruvian descent to adopt Peruvian children.

So she carries photos in her laptop and memories in her heart, and every day she wears a silver bracelet that she bought in Peru. It serves as a visual reminder of the lessons she learned, including: that you have to find your own happiness and not worry what others think, you need to trust that the people who care about you will support you, there are more important things in life than financial wealth, and everything happens for a reason.

"The trick is trying to keep those lessons fresh in your mind," she said, "to hold on to those feelings and not slip back into the rat race."

In one of those "everything happens for a reason" incidents, when Weitzel was preparing to return to work, she was offered a position on a project at Sun that needed a manager. "It was exactly the opportunity I had been looking for professionally before I decided I had to look elsewhere for meaning," she said.

She returned to work in January and has since been enjoying the challenges and responsibilities of her new position. But she tries to keep her perspective. "I don't work 12-hour days anymore," she said. "I work really hard during the work day, but I'm not tied to work as much as I used to be. My job is not who I am."

Weitzel was on campus May 11 to share her experiences with the B-Section chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). She detoured to Flint on her way home from a business trip to let current students know how empowering it can be to unplug from a hectic schedule and immerse oneself in another culture. Her visit was cosponsored by EWB, the Office of Women Student Affairs and Student Alumni Council.

"Coming to Kettering and talking about my experience with CCS has been a good reminder of the lessons I learned in Peru," she said. In a "pay it forward" way, her visit offered encouragement to the Kettering EWB chapters who are planning community volunteer projects in Flint and Louisiana.

Everything happens for a reason.

Written by Dawn Hibbard
(810) 762-9865