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From Orphan to US Ambassador
Former US ambassador Beatrice Wilkinson Welters was busy making final preparations to leave her Flagstaff Hill, St James, residence when she accepted a request for an interview by the Sunday Guardian on October 30. Dressed in a dark blue pin-striped business suit, she was still working at 6.35 that evening as she came to the door apologising—without the air of an ambassador.
“Hi how are you? Give me a few minutes I need to send off an e-mail, ok? Oh, and sorry for the mess, but as you know I’m packing.” The “mess” she referred to were neatly packed boxes that had been stacked around the ground floor of the residence, evidence of the end of her 30-month assignment in T&T.
She had earlier returned from Tobago, where she went to say farewell to House of Assembly chief secretary Orville London and minority leader Ashworth Jack, and was no doubt making final arrangements for the port and border security conference she opened at the Hyatt two days later.
Welters’ term in office in Port-of-Spain was not one filled with controversy and she rarely spoke to the media. But when she did make public pronouncements, they were based on a firm decision, to the point and unapologetic. It was a characteristic of the ambassador, whose upbringing was reflected in how she has done her job.
Welters was 12 when her father died. Five years earlier, her mother had also passed on. So she grew up in foster care with her adoptive family in Brooklyn, New York, a fate that she embraced to spur her on as she successfully climbed the corporate ladder. It would later allow her to make exceptional provision for others who would be raised in similar circumstances.
Together with her husband Anthony Welters, an attorney, she founded the AnBryce Foundation in 1995 to provide opportunities to underprivileged children to achieve their dreams and aspirations. The foundation acquired land in Virginia, where they hold an annual summer academy known as Camp Dogwood, teaching life skills to youths who would not otherwise have had the opportunity, and some who were orphans like her.
Welters credits a friend of her foster parents with shaping her into the individual she is today. “Looking back, I believe something was positive about it—look where I am now,” she said. “You know, there is always someone that children gravitate to for some emotional stability.
The friend of my foster family whom I affectionately called Aunt Regina, she believed in me from the very start. Something she saw in me said, ‘This girl has something, she'll make it no matter what,’ and I believe that gave me the encouragement to move on.
“I was always a very focused person, always did well in school. I don’t consider myself a brain, but I was always organised. I believe that is my strength. I believe anyone who is organised can do anything. “I can multi-task. I can do a lot of things, be involved in a lot of things and be on target each and every time. I’m an executor. I mean, if someone gives me a deadline, I execute. And I love when people say I can’t do something. I love it. Just love it.”
Welters embraced philanthropy around 1991, and she credits her Aunt Regina again for being the inspiration to embrace the principle of giving back.
“I believe that a smile, a nod, a hello can go a long way with someone. I’ve worked with a lot of kids, even here in Trinidad,” she said, pausing with a heavy sigh. “I believe they look up to us (adults), wanting direction. They don’t come out and say they want direction, but you can sense they want to know how you do it, how did you do it? And I've been saying to them, if I did, you can do it too.”
It was a message Welters carried with her on various visits to homes and non-governmental organisations she supported here. “A lot of people think being philanthropic is just what I call 'throwing money,' giving money away. But to me philanthropy is giving money, yes, but also giving quality time. It is the quality of time that you spend with individuals that you mentor.
So you invite them to your home, let them interact with your family and friends and become a part of your family, truly a part of your family and that’s how my husband and I have gone about...living.”
Welters was engaged in the full-time function she embraced as a philanthropist away from her corporate days at IBM—where she held several positions including systems engineer—when the call came to serve her country. As chairman and president of the AnBryce Foundation she had met US President Barack Obama in 2007, when the aspiring senator invited she and her husband to have breakfast with him on Capitol Hill.
“We did not know at the time that he was planning to run for President, but we invited him home for dinner after that with a group of business leaders and community activists with whom we associated, and then we did several fundraisers for him; and that is how the relationship began,” Welters recalled.
There was a gleam in her eyes as she described the cold January day when Obama was inaugurated as President. While the blankets provided for those in the VIP section warmed her body, the sight of hundreds of African-Americans who braved the weather to witness the historic event warmed her heart. But nothing prepared Welters for what would come a couple months later.
“I got the call from the President’s staff saying that he had nominated me to be an ambassador. When I first heard it I was stunned! I couldn't react to it and then when I did, it was one of feeling terribly honoured about it and very humbled, but at the same time having some reservations. At the time I was heading my foundation and sitting on six or seven non-profit boards and I had to contemplate leaving my comfort zone to do this.”
It also meant leaving behind her husband and her two sons, who were attending Notre Dame University, and there was also the concern about how she would be received by this country. “People react differently to this type of thing, some would have jumped to it but it took me some time, almost a month to decide whether or not I wanted to take on this experience. Yes, I knew I had a lot to offer but it would be totally out of my comfort zone,” she reflected.
Going back to the US...but still helping T&T
Now, having resigned, as is the custom of political appointees when the incumbent president runs for re-election, she is satisfied with her stewardship. “I feel great. I think that I have fit in well. The Trinidadian and Tobagonian people have accepted me with their hearts.
They have the gift of warmth and friendship, which they are not afraid to share with anyone. I think Trinidadians and Tobagonians are extremely genuine, you know immediately if they have a problem with you but that’s fine with me, I prefer that than anything else. I really enjoyed it.”
Describing herself as an extremely active person, Welters said “the running here and there to various meetings with the leaders of this country, trying to resolve problems, trying to work on and collaborate on various bilateral matters, and working in community outreach programmes—that is what I loved the best.”
She was not kidding when she said extremely active: she works out for at least two and a half hours a day and was known to have hiked through the Trinidad countryside, including scaling Mt Hololo a few times, as well as Lady Chancellor Hill and Terracita Drive.
“I hiked Mt Kilimanjaro twice, but when I came here my security detail had some issues. But they’ve gotten in shape too and I think they’re enjoying it now,” she said, laughing. Welters believes a lot of positive things have come out of her experience as a diplomat, though she admits she deliberately avoided the limelight normally associated with a US ambassador to this country.
“I’m a person who is very comfortable working behind the scenes. I do not need the cameras, the lights, the action. I don’t need that. “The ambassadorship did not define who I am. I was already defined before I took this and maybe that’s the difference. It didn’t define me.”
Now, she’s looking forward to being a private citizen again, and plans to return to T&T for the commissioning of the new facility of one of the homes she supports. She has set up Skype sessions with the homes and expects officials at the US Embassy here to keep tabs on them.
She also intends to have her foundation extend outreach programmes to local NGOs to encourage cultural and educational exchanges—having successfully run a programme, together with New York University’s Law School and NYU’s undergraduate school, to produce stellar students.
“It is not out of the question that some of the local children will one day attend Camp Dogwood’s life-transforming summer sessions,” she said. “I’ve had a wonderful time here. I’m lifted because I know I will always have some connection with T&T and I am free to come back and work in the non-profit world in my private capacity. That really excites me.”