Ten years ago in April 2005, Robert Sypitkowski was granted a six-month leave of absence from his job at the Department of Environmental Protection to assist in water system and sanitation improvements in Indonesia, in a region that had been devastated the December before by the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami. Since then, this late-life engineer, who did not complete his degree in engineering until the age of 40, has taken his skills to several other remote regions in Sudan, Peru and more.
On Saturday, April 25, Robert will be speaking about his experiences at the 21st annual HOPE festival at the University of Maine in Orono. Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with him at his home in Bangor. On the subject of hope, Robert says he finds it in people, the ones who decide to work against apparently insurmountable odds to bring positive change, even in the most crisis-ridden places on Earth.
While Robert was in Simeulue, the island of Indonesia where he did much of his relief work in 2005 as part of organization Doctors Without Borders, Robert met Roni Bintang. Roni, a native of Indonesia, was Robert’s young assistant and translator, and they became quite close. Robert assumed when he left Indonesia that they would never see each other again. They kept in touch, and Robert helped with Roni’s education from afar. Ten years later, in a turnaround that flushes Robert’s face with pride, Robert found himself traveling to be Roni’s assistant at an event in New York City. Roni Bintang had become a skilled photographer and was being honored by the Reuters news agency for photo of the year.
In 2007, Robert took another six-month assignment in Sudan, where tens of thousands of people were displaced by political and tribal strife.
“In one village of 35,000 to 40,000 people I was replacing the third round of latrines. We built 400 latrines and figured they’d last about four to six months.”
Conditions were so dire that the measure of success sometimes was quite small. Women waited in line to fill water jugs for six to eight hours in the hot sun. Robert and his small team elevated water systems and improved taps, so they were able to shorten the wait to two hours.
In 2008, Robert connected with another organization, Engineers Without Borders. In the last six years Robert has made numerous trips to Peru with Engineers Without Borders, most of them to the tiny mountain village of Llacamate, population 200. Not only has Robert grown to know many of the villagers of Llacamate, he also has enjoyed interactions with ever-changing teams of engineering students, with whom Robert travels as mentor and advisor.
What is it, I wonder, that motivates a person to give of themselves in such a significant way? When I asked Robert, he smiled and said, lightheartedly, “it goes back to when I was an altar boy.”
Though he meant it in jest, I think there is a lot of truth in that statement. Growing up in Michigan, Robert attended parochial school for 12 years and was an altar boy for many of them. After high school, he was devoted enough to the church that he intended to become a brother and entered the novitiate. After four months, he realized his passion was more about community contribution than about religion, so he withdrew.
Robert went to college and got a degree in theater design, which, he pointed out, incorporated many of the same skills he had used as an altar boy producing a church service. After several years of teaching theater design, during which he married and moved to Maine, Robert felt a desire to contribute in a more tangible, direct way to improving people’s lives. That led him to pursue a degree in engineering, which he completed at the University of Maine in 1990. The career shift is not as dramatic as it appears, Robert explains.
“I looked at both occupations as problem solving,” he said. “I just solve different kinds of problems.”
More than anything, Robert explained, he values the international work he does because few things have felt as meaningful to him. “I feel so lucky to be able to do all this.”
“Do you feel hopeful?” I asked.
Robert thought for a while before responding.
“Yes. People like Roni and many of the students I’ve worked with … will make the world better wherever they are.”
Hope lies in people, and Robert’s experiences bear that out.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.