A Gift of Time, Money, and Effort
Robert Wells (second from right) helped fund a service learning trip to Belize for Virginia Tech students, and he also went along to help out with the work
By Albert Raboteau
When Robert and Janice Wells heard that some Virginia Tech students and professors wanted to install much-needed water and sanitation systems at a school in Belize, they decided not only to sponsor the effort, but to join in.
The Wellses traveled to Central America along with 18 students and several faculty members and played important roles in the work at a school in Bella Vista, a small village in the Stann Creek District of Southern Belize.
"To work with the students was rewarding for Janice and I both," said Mr. Wells (building construction '73), whose day job is running a construction firm that employs 235 people and does about $100 million in business a year.
The Wellses both grew up near Hampton Roads, live in Virginia Beach, and have a long history of supporting programs at Virginia Tech, particularly in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS), of which the building construction program is a part.
They have also made significant gifts to Virginia Tech athletics, and are members of the Ut Prosim Society, a select group of the university’s most generous donors. Mr. Wells serves on campaign committees for CAUS and the Hampton Roads region within the $1 billion Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future.
Like many alumni from Virginia Tech's building construction program of his era, Mr. Wells said the program's founder and longtime head, William Favrao, was an influential figure in his life.
"I think the sole reason I was able to graduate from Virginia Tech was his faith in me, and I've tried to emulate some of his beliefs in other people and use his methods of mentorship," Mr. Wells said.
Supporting Virginia Tech is one way to give others an opportunity like the one he took advantage of as a student, said Mr. Wells, who also employs several Hokies at VIRTEXCO, the company he founded with two partners in 1976, where he remains CEO.
Mr. Wells got involved in the Belize project though his role as chairman of the university's Myers-Lawson School of Construction Industry Board. The trip was jointly organized by the school of construction and Peacework, an organization that promotes international volunteerism. The Wellses, who have committed more than $1 million to the university, gave $50,000 toward the Belize project.
"I think the ability for our students to do service learning as part of their education is huge," Mr. Wells said. "We do not live in this world alone, and it is a terribly shrinking planet. These young people have to experience places out of the U.S. in order for them to fully understand what we have going on here. They have to put back into the world. And they have to act as ambassadors, in a good way, to our neighbors."
Mrs. Wells also said international experiences are important for today's students.
"I look around me worldwide and there are so many things we all need to help with and be aware of," she said.
While the trip is likely to have broadened the horizons of many of the students who participated, it also gave them valuable experience on all phases of a construction project, from planning through completion.
Jeff Coyne, a Herndon, Va., native who is in his second year of the College of Engineering’s program in civil and environmental engineering, oversaw the portion of the project in which a new line was run from a water tower to the school. His team also built four water storage tanks and enclosed them in cinderblock structures for protection.
"That was the first time I was ever given a real leadership role outside of the classroom," Coyne said. "I think it had and will have an impact [on me] later in life. I think I'll be more ready to take on other leadership roles in the future."
Janice Wells said that, for her, the trip was "such a wonderful way to help the students, to help teachers set an example, and to maybe get others interested in doing [volunteer work] like this."
Her husband agreed: "We definitely got out of it more than we put into it," he said.