‘It’s Like Christmas for Them’ - The Missourian: Features People

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‘It’s Like Christmas for Them’

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Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 6:32 pm

The cases of diarrhea are down significantly in Pimienta, Honduras, according to a report Dra. Martha Elena Rodriguez of the Honduran Health Department prepared at the request of Primero Agua (Water First), the Franklin County-based sister organization to Washington Overseas Mission.

Last year, the Honduran community had a total of 353 cases of diarrhea (239 in children under 15, and 114 in adults). That number was down 90 percent by July 1 of this year.

“During the first half of 2013, only 35 cases of diarrhea in those less than 15 years of age and no adult cases have been reported,” Dr. Rodriguez noted.

Even better — no deaths.

Here in America, the thought of anyone dying from diarrhea seems highly unlikely, but in Pimienta, Honduras, it used to be fairly routine until a few years ago.

Things began to change in 2010 when Primero Agua was organized and began raising funds to drill wells in the village and educate the people there about the dangers of drinking contaminated water.

“With the intervention of NGO’s El Agua Tu Prioridad and Primero Agua, the municipal water system has been upgraded and the cases of diarrhea have been reduced,” Dr. Rodriguez wrote in her report.

“The educational component toward better understanding of clean water is very important and has made an impact which is reflected in the reduction of cases of diarrhea in 2013.”

El Agua Tu Prioridad (The Water, Your Priority) is a Honduran foundation that was organized to work directly with Primero Agua in Pimienta.

Leo Meyer, Marthasville, a volunteer with Primero Agua who has made half a dozen trips to Pimienta (four with Primero Agua), said you can see the difference these wells make in the lives of the villagers by the broad smiles on their faces as they let the clean water from a new well pour over their hands.

“Picture yourself having to walk a mile to a river just to pick up some water and then carrying it back another mile on your head,” said Meyer, who worked as a farmer for years and has now been with Sporlan Valve for more than two decades.

“And a lot of times it’s not even really good water . . . But install a pump there and the water comes out nice and clean, it’s like Christmas for them.”

Fellow Primero Agua treasurer Sam Unnerstall, Washington, who works as an accountant with Unnerstall and Unnerstall CPA in Washington, agreed.

“The joy on their faces, it’s like this is a miracle, to have this in the backyard,” he said.

Dale Lohmeyer, a Primero Agua board member who has a background as a tool and die maker and now serves as president of Warco Inc., Marthasville, a manufacturer of transformer components and machinery, said it’s the health benefits of having clean drinking water that makes the most difference.

“Put a well in and think of all the lives you’re saving immediately, not even to mention the next generations,” he said.

People in America have no frame of reference for what it’s like to live without easy access to clean water, said Lohmeyer, who noted on a trip overseas he heard it said once that Americans are so rich that they even go to the bathroom in clean water.

“If you start to think about it, even the poorest people living here in the United States have access to clean water of some sort or another,” he said.

Progress to Date

Primero Agua sends groups to work in Pimienta twice a year — once in spring (around February or March) and once in August.

A group of four volunteers, including Primero Agua Executive Director and Co-Founder Jay Quattlebaum, Washington, made the trip Aug. 3-10. While they were there, the crew drilled two additional wells.

Earlier this year, the Honduran crew with Primero Agua’s subsidiary group “El Agua Tu Prioridad,” drilled its first well independently and reconditioned five others.

That brings the total number of wells drilled in Pimienta to seven, not to mention two additional pumps set in abandoned wells and 30 wells that have been reconditioned.

Currently Primero Agua is sponsoring the education of Fernando Ugarte, the 23-year-old son of Dr. Raul Ugarte, who has been the primary contact for Washington Overseas Mission and Primero Agua for over 15 years.

Fernando has been an active member of the Primero Agua drilling teams for the last two years, working side-by-side with the team’s experienced well drillers from Texas to gain on-the-job training.

He currently is taking classes at East Central College, living with Quattlebaum and his family in Washington, to prepare for a transfer next year to Southwest Mississippi Community College in Summit, Miss., where he’ll earn an associate’s degree in well construction technology.

That was the closest school that offered this training, said Unnerstall, noting another school is in Canada.

“We were lucky to get him in at all,” Unnerstall noted. “There really wasn’t room for him, but when the school found out what we were doing, and the goal . . . they made room.”

Primero Agua last year paid to send Fernando to a pump and drill school in Texas to learn about repairing and installing pumps, work he did through El Agua Tu Prioridad throughout the year when Primero Agua volunteer teams were not in Pimienta.

As a married man with a son, Fernando is making a personal sacrifice to be away from his family for so long so he can receive all of this training and education, said Unnerstall.

He’s doing it not for himself as much as for his community, Unnerstall noted, explaining the idea is that once his training is complete, Fernando will be able to train others in Honduras to help.

Shift in Focus

This marks a shift in the focus of Primero Agua, said Unnerstall. In the beginning it was all about raising funds to be able to send volunteer drill teams to Pimienta to install wells, but now the focus has become more on educating the Hondurans so they can recondition and drill the wells on their own.

“We’re still going to do our annual and biannual trips, obviously — the more people with knowledge there, the more you can get done — but the goal has shifted.”

Fund-raising will continue to be a priority because new equipment will always need to be purchased or old equipment maintained.

Funds have never been used to send the volunteers to Pimienta, Lohmeyer stressed. Volunteers have always paid their own way, plus expenses and thensome.

“There are no administrative costs here,” said Lohmeyer.

Unnerstall added, “If you give us $500 that will pay for a pump. There are no other costs that figure into that. Nobody else is getting any of that money.

“If you give us $500, we take a picture of the pump installed to show you where your money went. There’s no overhead.”

Although he was reluctant to put a time frame on it, Unnerstall said a new goal is within the next 10 years or so to have teams in Pimienta set up to be able to drill new wells on their own forever, with funding support for equipment and maintenance from Primero Agua.

That means the boundary of the group can expand.

“If we get this community to where it’s self-sufficient, the goal is to move to another community and do the same thing,” said Unnerstall.

“When this first started, that was a long-range plan, an abstract thought that almost this could happen, but now it’s a lot more real.”

Upcoming Fund-Raiser

Primero Agua will hold its fourth annual fund-raiser Saturday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. at the John B. Busch Brewery in Washington.

The evening will include drinks, hors d’oeuvres and silent and oral auctions of practical items, plus some items brought back from Honduras.

Food will be provided by Pat Long with Cafe Mosaic.

The deadline to register to attend is Sept. 7. For more information about ticket prices and details on the event, people can visit http://primeroagua.org, call 636-432-3378 or email primeroagua@gmail.com.

Last year’s Primero Agua fund-raiser brought in around $20,000, and this year the group hopes to raise more. They already know of several drill stems that need replacing, which will be an expense of around $6,000.

“The drill stem that pushes your bit down into the ground is like a pipe so big around, but it’s 10 feet long and hollow in the middle,” said Lohmeyer. “Well they get fatigued and right now we have to replace a bunch of them . . . because if they snap off in the hole, then you’ve lost a $2,000 bit.

“The major equipment that we have down there — two rigs, a lift, a crane, a few trucks . . . every trip there is something that broke or that you realize by the time we come to do this again, we’ll need to replace,” he said.

For more information on Primero Agua or to view photos of the volunteers trips, people can visit http://primeroagua.org or find the group on Facebook.

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