Water charity volunteers reflect on life-changing international work
By Sue Tiffin
Published Feb. 26, 2019
Rebeka Borgdorff remembers vividly the moment clean water came surging up from beneath the ground in a village in Guatemala.
The Haliburton teacher had travelled to the Central American country with Water Ambassadors Canada, then known as Living Water International, in 2006 to drill a well for the community. It was the first time she’d been to a developing country, and was spending some of her time doing programming with the kids in a one-room schoolhouse.
The school was built with cinder blocks, she said, with no furniture inside. The teacher came from a nearby city and would bring her own book to teach from. There were no school supplies.
It had been a couple of days since the drilling started and the team hadn’t yet hit water.
Just as activities were wrapping up for the day, Borgdorff remembers hearing a loud pulsing noise coming from outside.
“They had struck water and it literally just burst out of the ground like a big fountain before you cap it and put the pump on,” she said. “The kids just went bolting, screaming, running straight for the water and literally were dancing in this fountain of water, crying, so thankful. And knowing they could play in it and taste it and have their mouths wide open, you know it was safe and that it wasn’t something that was going to hurt them, was really a beautiful sight to see.”
She said she was struck by the disparity of access to clean water between Canada and other parts of the world.
“It’s just such a simple given factor of life that I just couldn’t fathom that people were dying from diarrhea. How does that happen?” she said.
Diarrhea is a common cause of death in children when they drink contaminated water. Water Ambassadors says water-borne diseases kill 6,000 children a day, and that more children have died from diarrhea diseases in the last 10 years than all people killed in armed conflict since the Second World War.
Borgdorff connected with Water Ambassadors through its founders, Barry Hart and Heather Alloway, retired teachers.
On Tuesday, Feb. 19, Hart and Alloway were at the Community Room in Haliburton for a Water Ambassadors Reunion, giving volunteers and supporters a chance to catch up with one another, reminisce about the organization’s 17-year history, and get ready to do it all again.
“Kinson Leung, the new executive director of Water Ambassadors, calls Haliburton ground zero for this charity. It really is,” Hart told the group assembled. “It started here and it’s still strong here.”
The organization describes itself as being a faith-based, non-profit Canadian charity focused on providing water around the world. Teams drill wells, but also do repairs, teach hygiene and install purification systems.
Technology has changed over time with improvements to equipment allowing teams to be nimble when they respond to disaster situations.
Particularly impressive is the portable chlorination unit, which is small enough to be picked up and moved around by one person.
“Obviously we cannot take compressed gas chlorine on an airplane, but you can take salt. If you remember chemistry in Grade 12, if you electrilize salt, you get chlorine and sodium. It works. That will kill critters,” Hart said. The units can efficiently purify water and be taken from one area to the next quickly.
Hart said they were used in Haiti following an earthquake by a team that included Haliburton’s David Ogilvie. “These chlorinators worked because you could set up tanks of water and take the chlorinator from tank to tank to tank and do thousands of litres of water for drinking water,” Hart said.
He personally attested to the effectiveness of the equipment.
“We’re the first ones to drink it [after purification],” he said. “We’ve taken water out of cow ponds where the cows are mooing and pooping, we scoop the water up, we pour it in that, we chlorinate it and we’re the first ones to drink it. And I’m still here. It does work. We put these chlorinators in all over the place. They just work terrific.”
In the nearly 17 years since founding the organization, 300,000 have received water around the world, Hart told the group.
Teams of volunteers travel several times a year to villages mostly in Central America and the Caribbean to do the work of providing clean water, whether that be drilling wells or installing water filtration systems. Each volunteer has to raise their own money to cover expenses: about $3,200 each.
General donations to the organization can be designated for equipment purchase or to support a team. This year, two teams have already been on location in Honduras and Colombia with trips scheduled for Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Hart encouraged those assembled on Tuesday to come together and sponsor a village. He said if 10 of them pledged $20 a month, they would have enough money to do it.
Although Water Ambassadors is a Christian charity – the reunion included a prayer, the logo features a cross and the promotional materials quote passages from the Bible – Hart said volunteers are welcome from any background.
“If you’re not a Christian person, believer at all, that’s OK because we let everybody go on the teams and we let everybody in the country drink the water. ... Everybody’s welcome on a team. We respect all people, beliefs and everything else,” he said.
Borgdorff was also motivated by her Christian faith.
“Just knowing that it’s the most practical way to show your love to someone is to give them their basic need, never mind trying to preach a message to them, you have to show them first. For me, it was a way that I knew I could do that without strings attached just to say I’m here to show you I care about you,” she said.
That caring came back to her exponentially through the connections she made and in the kind treatment she received. She noted that due to poverty, the people in the village ate very little and would save their chickens to eat for special occasions. But when the Water Ambassadors team was there, they had chicken on their plates every day.
“I didn’t need that, I didn’t deserve that, but you feel so humbled at the levels that they would go to to show their thanks,” she said.
Although she doesn’t have a background in the trades, Borgdorff said thanks to the training, teamwork and inclusive environment of Water Ambassadors, she was “able to take part in all aspects of the project.”
Borgdorff hasn’t been able to do another trip yet, but hopes that one day soon her whole family will get to go together.
She said she frequently tells her students about the experience and encourages them to travel when they can to see how other people live, and to give of themselves.
“It will change you,” she said.