January 15, 2020
Aigars Panzer made a promise to his birth mother when she visited him in an orphanage in the Eastern European country of Latvia. Days before, he had considered running away, but now he vowed to her that he would always take care of his brothers.
That commitment to his brothers endured through their adoption and their resettlement in America; now Aigars, a senior carpenter about to graduate, is preparing to buy and renovate a house for him and his brothers to live in.
“My goal, ever since I got to Williamson, has been to be in a position where I could take in my brothers and care for them.”
Aigars’ love for wood and trees is generational. In the forests of Latvia, his father earned his living by chopping wood and moving logs. Aigars learned to live in challenging circumstances. With no indoor plumbing, Aigars woke every morning to get water from a well, fruit from trees he climbed, and free food provided by the public school.
Misfortune tore his family apart. Trying to protect his wife and sons, his father killed a home invader and was sent to jail. Aigars’ mother was left alone to care for her sons. Aigars, his mother, and brothers lived for two years in a barn until things improved and they were able to move back into a house. It wasn’t long, however, before Aigars’ family would be shattered even further, when a neighbor called the police who came with a red van and removed Aigars and his brothers from the home.
For years, Aigars worked tirelessly to track his brothers as they were moved to different orphanages in different towns. At one orphanage of 1,000 children, Aigars found his 2-year old brother who he hadn’t seen since he was a baby.
Early on, Aigars exhibited the core values of discipline and integrity that, as a senior at Williamson, he exemplifies now. Placed among older children, he resisted the peer pressure to drink, take drugs, and sneak out of the orphanage.
Then came the adoption. A couple arrived in Latvia, planning to adopt Aigars and his brothers. They spent some time getting to know the boys, and, fortunately, after two weeks, Aigars’ English was strong enough that he could translate for the couple during the legal proceedings. Standing before the judges that were overseeing his adoption, he thought about his birthmother and the promise he made.
“For the sake of my brothers who would receive a better life in the US than in Latvia” I answered ‘yes’ to the question: Do you want to be adopted?”
After two days in a hotel, Aigars and his brothers, along with their adoptive parents, flew from Latvia to St. Louis, Missouri.
Aigars was academically ahead when he started middle school in the United States. “School was much harder in Latvia. Here, they would’ve had me skip two grades if my English wasn’t so poor.” He studied hard and, to improve his English, he read children’ books, comic books, and then fiction novels. Looking back he remembered, “I read a 400-page novel in a day!”
At age 15, Aigars moved to Springfield, Pennsylvania to live with his adoptive aunt. He attended Springfield High School where he excelled. Every year he made the Dean’s list, and impressed his woodshop teacher, George Trout. In his second year, he built a dining room table and four matching chairs. “After that I wanted to up myself.” For his final project, Aigars’ built a tiny house. “No one ever did projects of this scale. I was the only student Mr. Trout would consider letting do this.”
Besides his tiny house, Aigars’ built a relationship with Mr. Trout who relied on Aigars to help others in woodshop class. The self-assurance he gained in woodshop helped him to assert himself and “go for it;” he took a world affairs class at Delaware County Community College. “I went from a kid with no confidence and poor language skills to a kid with confidence who was a leader.”
Williamson Carpentry Shop Director Mike Neville 0W0 remembers Aigars’ admissions interview. “We knew he was talented and very smart. We could tell he had a natural talent and a passion for wood working.” He and the rest of the faculty had high expectations of Aigars, “He has not only met them, but exceeded them.”
His junior year, Aigars was one of two carpentry students hired by Williamson to work on campus projects during the summer. The work included building a back deck for Reverend Mark Specht 7W7, and renovating the house that Vice President of Plans and Operations Corey Jackson 0W3 lives in. “You can be so creative working on real-world projects.”
Aigars gets just as fired up when talking about his teacher. He is grateful to Mr. Neville for encouraging balance in life. In the middle of Aigars’ junior year, Mike Neville noticed Aigars getting stressed out from the many side jobs and extra projects he was working on. “He was burning himself out,” says Mr. Neville who remembers, as a young carpenter, how overdoing it got in the way of spending quality time with his own kids.
Aigars is looking ahead; he wants to be with his brothers, and to keep the joy he experiences from doing carpentry.
Williamson’s curriculum includes meaningful leadership training, especially for juniors and seniors. But Mr. Neville saw Aigars as a leader from the start. “As a freshman, he helped out his classmates at Williamson who weren’t as experienced as he was. He even helped the upper classmen!” He turns to Aigars to encourage other students and “get them to step up. He’s mature beyond his years, and represents Williamson’s core values.”
Aigars knows that had he gone to a traditional four-year college on a ROTC scholarship, it would have been nine years before he would be able to take in his brothers. Now, after only three years, he has landed a full-time job with CBG Building Company, and can more quickly prepare for his brothers big move to Philadelphia. “I want to buy a home and work on it,” which he feels completely ready to do after his experience at Williamson. “I know what I’m doing.”
When asked what his hopes are for Aigars, Mr. Neville’ says his “hopes for Aigars are already his reality. I know Aigars will be successful because he has a strong work ethic, and a desire to get better every day.”
Aigars wonders about his brothers who “are somewhat interested in the trades, but they are young. They want to go fishing every day!” And that’s what happened when he went to St. Louis to see them over the summer — he took his brothers fishing.
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