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Project Brings Students and Dominican Republic Families Together

Water Filtration Project Brings Students and Dominican Republic Families Together

Gary Michels and Josh Steere talk about their experiences with the project

“See you next year,” says Gary Michels, Ph.D., to his Dominican Republic host mother as he exits the concrete-floor, tin-roof structure that has been his home for that past two days. “Si Dios quiere,” she responds with a smile as she wraps her arms around him in a hug. The phrase, meaning “God willing,” is a trademark of Latin American culture.

For Michels, a chemistry professor at Creighton University, this is an annual occurrence. Three years ago, Creighton’s Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC) helped him bring the first group of three students to work on a water filtration project in the campos, or rural communities, of the Dominican Republic. This spring, he took 13 students on the three-week program, which took place May 12-June 6.

“The mission of the program is to provide them [Dominicans] a low-cost, personal water-filter system so that they will be able to drink water that’s free of bacterial contamination and parasites,” said Michels. The water they use is retrieved from streams, rivers or wells or collected from rain water and is often contaminated by rat or bird droppings and bacteria. By world standards, much of the water is unsafe and undrinkable."

The students construct new filters and then travel to campos where filters are present to test the water, repair or replace the filters and teach families how to use them.

The $20 filters are not free, however. “Oftentimes, families have to adjust their lifestyles, and that takes a big commitment, especially with water,” said Josh Steere, a Creighton University student who participated in the program in 2006. “They have to change the way they get water every day, so they [filters] are only provided to families who are willing to invest in it.”

Families do receive support, though. They are not expected to cover the entire cost all at once, and each community has a cooperador, or health care representative, to help them maintain the filters.

“We can only do so much in three weeks. Even though it’s regular – each year they go down for three weeks –for the other 49 weeks, there’s no one there. But the cooperador is there. The cooperador knows how to implement the program,” said Steere.

While the students contribute greatly to the success of the water-filter program, what they gain from the trip may leave a deeper mark. Steere, who is applying to medical school this year, said he now realizes that there are many ways to help people besides being a doctor.

“They don’t have a monopoly on compassion,” he said. “In a lot of ways it made my interest in medicine feel a lot more sincere. I realized this is my place; this is where I fit into the broader picture.”

This reflection is a purposeful element of the program. “It’s very important for students to gain an understanding of life outside the U.S. in a second- or third-world country,” Michels said. “If you take away the materialism in life, what are you left with? You have family, community, and you have your religion.”

Students learn this not only through their work on the water filters but also by living in a campo for two days. “The people acted in complete selflessness, offering us food and drink or a comfortable chair,” said Lindsay Blake, a student on this year’s trip. “They were always offering, even when they didn’t have that much to give.”

Michels says that the people are the reason he goes back every year. “They have a genuine gift that goes beyond kindness to just love,” he said.

For the students who experienced that love, the Dominican Republic is much more than the country where they helped ensure safe drinking water one summer. It is a place they will hold dearly in their hearts and memories for the rest of their lives.

For more information about ILAC, and its various programs go to: http://www.creighton.edu/ministry/ilac/programs/index.php.