It’s not often that you have a conversation with a grown woman and in the middle of listing off her skill set she stops and says with great joy “I can make slime in my sleep!” But then again it’s not often that you have a conversation with someone as interesting as Micaela Balzer. Born to a single mom in Bolivia, Balzer and mom Olga Beltran immigrated to the United States, more specifically East Lansing, when Balzer was 8 years old, moving in with her aunt Teresa, who had immigrated nearly 20 years earlier, and her cousin James. The decision was not an easy one for Beltran, who had worked as a nurse in Bolivia. But as she had done since the day of Balzer’s birth, Beltran was doing what was best for her daughter. Although the two left many family members and a culture they adored, Balzer said Beltran knew the move to the United States would provide Balzer with opportunities she would not have otherwise. Even at the young age of 8, Balzer knew this and has worked hard ever since to take full advantage of those opportunities. After graduating from East Lansing High School, Balzer — who comes from a long line of engineers and is a self-proclaimed math nerd — enrolled in Michigan State University to study engineering. But fate had a different plan for Balzer. Although she wasn’t allowed to work in high school (her mother wanted her to focus on her studies) Balzer was allowed to volunteer. She and a friend happened upon Impression 5 Science Center in Lansing where, at 15, Balzer began volunteering as a greeter. Soon enough she was asked to take on a paying position in the gift shop a few hours a week (which her mom did allow), and once she entered college, Balzer was able to work even more hours at Impression 5. She did pretty much everything from cleaning the bathroom to, of course, making slime. “You become one of the team,” she said of working at the children’s museum. “You feel like you could do anything … You give people experiences … all of that fit my personality.” But when Balzer was asked to fill in and teach a group of fourth graders about air pressure, she realized not all aspects of working at Impression 5 suited her. “I said ‘absolutely not,’” she recalls. But the education director at the time believed Balzer would be great and encouraged her to take on the challenge. Balzer took home the teaching script and rehearsed it for days, until finally the day of the class, she had stressed herself out to the point of illness. “I can’t do this,” she said. “I’m starting to freak out.” The education director said he understood and apologized for thinking Balzer had what it took. “Something snapped,” said Balzer, whose mother has always told her she could do anything. And before she knew it, she was walking into a room of fourth graders, ready to talk about air pressure. “The fourth graders … they were beautiful,” said Balzer laughing. By this time Balzer had forgot the entire teaching script and so instead she just started asking the kids what they knew about air pressure and the class went from there. “I left that room on the biggest high of my life,” said Balzer. The experience made Balzer realize she had to change her major to education — a decision that broke her mother’s heart since teachers in Bolivia are not highly paid or highly respected. But soon enough Balzer’s mother not only accepted her decision, but was behind her 100 percent. “She truly believed in letting me make my own decisions.” Balzer finished her education degree at MSU and continued to teach at Impression 5. After graduation she was hired at the museum full-time, and in 2004 current Executive Director Erik Larson made Balzer the museum’s education director. Since taking on the role, Balzer has worked to grow Impression 5’s weekend programs. Recently the museum began opening its doors on Sunday as well as Saturday. In addition Balzer works to develop curriculum for the museum’s classes. “We want to deliver programs that are valuable,” she said. “We want to continue to do good science.” And just as it was more than 15 years ago when Balzer got her start at Impression 5, those at the center work to be sure that everyone — from visitors to volunteers to employees — feels a sense of ownership. Besides offering Balzer a rewarding career in a field she loves, Impression 5 also provided her with a place to meet her future husband. Balzer met her husband Jeremiah when he signed up to volunteer at the center in 2002. Blonde and blue-eyed Balzer said Jeremiah was not exactly her type, but still she said, “something was there.” She invited him out with a group of fellow Impression 5 employees and volunteers and the two hit it off. “He’s the most honest person I’ve ever met,” said Balzer. The two were married in 2004 and welcomed their son Jack into the family four years ago. Today the couple lives in Lansing with Jack, their dog Soda and Balzer’s mother. “I’m here to take care of my mother too,” said Balzer of her decision to invite her mother to live with her. “She did the most remarkable thing … she sacrificed everything … I owe everything to my mother.” And although some husbands might not like the idea of living with their mother-in-law, Balzer said it was a part of her heritage that Jeremiah had to be comfortable with before the two could marry. He’s not only comfortable with it, Balzer said the two share a lot — including a love of sports. “I can’t explain how lucky I feel to have found that,” Balzer said of her relationship with Jeremiah and his relationship with her mother. Balzer said living with her mother also allows her to continue to work and know that Jack is well cared for … and well fed. “To this day I don’t know how to cook,” Balzer said. While Balzer and her mother became American citizens when Balzer was 18, they have not turned their backs on Bolivia. In fact, they visit often and have many future visits with Jack planned. “We plan on visiting Bolivia often,” said Balzer. “I want him to be proud of his roots and his heritage.” In an effort to do the same for herself and support other area Latinas, Balzer is a member of the Hispanic Women In Network group in the Lansing area. Together Latina women from the area from all walks of life work to discover and address the needs of other Latina women in the area. Balzer also works to nurture the math and science lover in young girls. Currently she is working on developing all-girl math and science programs at Impression 5. She also does her part to get the word out about what an amazing community Lansing is. “I really feel we’ve got something so valuable here,” she said. “Lansing has a lot to offer.” This summer Balzer said she and her family will be out visiting area festivals, the Potter Park Zoo, which happens to be Jack’s favorite place, and more. Her wish? That others join her. “I want people to get out there and get going,” she said. “(Our) community is so vibrant.” Balzer would know — she and her blue slime are an integral part of it.
Emily Caswell is the Managing Editor of CAWLM. She has a passion for fun, family, friends, shopping sprees, cold drinks and Lansing.