Hometown: Albuquerque, NM
When I applied to Fort Lewis College, I thought I knew exactly what career path I wanted to pursue. My plan was to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and enter a master’s program for Child Life Specialists. Shortly after I was accepted, I had my first encounter with Village Aid Project-Engineers Without Borders (VAP-EWB). During the Albuquerque area open house, clips of VAP-EWB projects were shown. I had just committed to Fort Lewis College and the opportunity to fulfill my lifelong dream for international service made me even more excited! After the video completed, I whispered to my mother, “I am going to do that.” Four years later, my career path is more ambitious and I am more compassionate toward others thanks to VAP-EWB.
VAP-EWB is a Registered Student Organization (RSO) where students develop and then implement projects in lower-income countries. The group started work in Thailand and then moved to Laos and Ecuador. This year we are supporting communities in Ecuador and Nicaragua. Our group focuses on water systems and latrines because the lack of access to these amenities is a major global health problem. According to the Center of Disease Control, an estimated 801,000 children under the age of 5 perish from diarrheal diseases in younger countries. Roughly 88% of these cases are attributed to inadequate sanitation or water supply. While it is easy to feel daunted by these statistics, VAP-EWB realizes that this problem is solvable.
A unique feature about VAP-EWB is that all majors are welcome to participate. While engineering experience is crucial for construction, it takes a variety of minds to make a project sustainable. Even though my math skills are mediocre, I assisted with the health and education plans. Our main goal is to improve health of the community with the project. Also everyone is trained in construction skills by the incredible faculty advisors (Dr. Don May and Dr. Laurie Williams) and our wonderful community partners. I take pride in the fact that I can saw pipe, operate a power drill, mix concrete, and get a stubborn toilet to flush by reaching into the tank (a skill that comes in handy in Africa and in the USA)!
For nine months we plan the project at the college and the following summer our teams travel to the countries. I have had the privilege to work on two projects in Ecuador. During the summer of 2011 I worked in Marco Pampa on a gravity fed water system and in 2012 I was part of the inaugural latrine project in Ganquis. Both experiences were challenging and physically taxing. I got dirty and a great appreciation for toilets that flush when you become ill. I loved collaborating with the communities to help establish the change they wanted in their lives. I was humbled by my peers’ and Quechua people’s construction expertise and skills.
I was also amazed by the physical strength of the women. Women could carry their babies in the front and two bags of concrete on their back down a steep hillside. Yet during women’s health meetings I heard about their struggles in a patriarchal society, which helped me realize that I wanted to commit more time for women and children’s health. I wanted to work in international communities for a longer period of time. I decided to pursue a study abroad site in a younger country and a graduate education in public health, and leave the Child Life Specialist path.
Finally, VAP-EWB demonstrated to me that there is good in everyone. The second time I volunteered in Ecuador the airlines lost my bag. Navigating 15 days in the Ecuadorian Andes without my essentials was challenging. However the way that VAP-EWB team and the community of Ganquis reached out was incredible. Even though a family had limited supplies of blankets, they loaned me a couple to form a makeshift sleeping bag. Another man drove me to Riobamba so I could purchase clothes and toiletries. Our community partners let me wear their pants, socks, and undershirt for the entire project. My situation was rare but it enabled me to see the best in people. I will miss working with VAP-EWB but I am excited to be a part of the first water system project in Nicaragua this May!