Alumni Spotlight: Aaron Wieler

Aaron Wieler
Volunteer Corps, Namibia, 2007

Aaron Wieler spent a year volunteering in Namibia through AJWS Volunteer Corps in 2007. In summer 2008 he received an AJWS-AVODAH Double Impact Social Justice Grant to support an internship with Design for Development in Ladakh, India. Aaron currently works for Whirlwind Wheelchair International in San Francisco.

What was your Volunteer Corps year like?

It was challenging in a lot of good and hard ways. I worked for the NGO Bicycling and Empowerment Network (BEN) Namibia, managing their project on building a bicycle ambulance trailer. I learned a lot—professionally, about NGO project management, about working cross-culturally around the actual design process and technology; and personally, about living in another country and culture. It turned out to be a very positive experience.

It was also really busy. I spent four months designing different bicycle ambulance prototypes and conducting field trials with different user groups, most of whom were HIV/AIDS home-based care volunteers with different community-based organizations around Namibia. Then I hired a welder and started to go into small scale production. We were producing ten bicycle ambulances a month by the time I left. The project is still going, which I'm pretty excited about. When you can make yourself redundant in a project that you started it's always a good sign.

How did you become involved with this kind of work?

My undergraduate program was in integrated design fabrication and social contexts and focused on design for disability. Through it I was exposed to a lot of different possibilities in how designs can be used for international development, which isn't being done nearly as much as I would like to see. I started working with small integrated technology projects in the context of academia but then became involved with a wheelchair design organization that I work for now, called Whirlwind Wheelchair International.

What was your experience like this summer in India?

Design for Development sent me as part of a team of health care professionals to support an organization in Ladakh, India called Health Inc. We were there for a short period of time, but we helped establish programs that would allow the organization to continue our work for the rest of year.

Part of my role was to work with one staff member, Dorjay, who didn't have formal design or project management training, and build his capacity to coordinate the equipment design project. Another part of the project was to assess the possibilities for assisted technologies for some of the disabled kids the occupational therapists were seeing. We ended up building a caster chair, a kind of low wheelchair, for one of the girls who lives in a rural village in a house on a hillside where she didn't have any mobility; she was dependent on her grandmother to carry her around. We did that with a couple of other clients as well, and we worked on a playground design for a school. The integration of play into learning is a new educational model for Ladakh, so if it works well it could lead to a pilot project for other schools in Ladakh.

How does Judaism play a role in your life?

Judaism in my life is largely based on community and on how religion can facilitate different kinds of learning and sharing of different experiences in life. For example, I was sent by AJWS to do consulting work primarily for Christian faith-based organizations in Namibia that were doing home-based care. Through volunteering, I am able to talk with different folks in different places about the values embedded in Judaism. I had really good conversations about the similarities and differences between Buddhism and Judaism when I was working with Dorjay, who is Buddhist. For me, that kind of openness is exemplary of what I like about Judaism, where service and open-mindedness and sharing and integration are highly valued.