Engineering Students’ Global Efforts Recognized

by Whitney Chamberlain

Engineers Without Borders – UMaine (EWB-UMaine) is a group made up of students, faculty, and mentors with an interest in improving the quality of life for people in developing countries. Our mission is to “foster a worldwide cultural awareness and a strong sense of volunteerism in today’s future leaders through sustainable and community-driven engineering projects.” Our most recent endeavor was an implementation trip to Dulce Vivir, Honduras in the beginning of March. Dulce Vivir is located in the Western mountains of Honduras. We have been working with the 120-person community since 2008. The community faces many challenges due to flooding, overflowing latrines, poor health,

The village of Dulce Vivir, Honduras

poor access to clean water, and lack of economic opportunity. Our first meeting with the community in 2008 was to discuss the community’s priorities and find out if we could help them resolve any of their issues. The people of Dulce Vivir identified overflowing latrines as their biggest problem, so EWB-UMaine researched several alternative treatment options to present to the community. Together we opted for a septic tank and leach field design. The project was off and running! EWB-UMaine members including students, faculty and professional mentors got together on a weekly basis to design a system and plan for the construction of this complex project. Thousands of volunteer hours were contributed over the years, and two additional trips were taken in 2010 to survey the site, acquire the appropriate permissions, and find materials suppliers. In addition, EWB-UMaine holds weekly group meetings to develop skills, bring in new members, organize group activities, coordinate fundraising efforts and listen to speakers.

EWB- UMaine travel team and mentors. From left to right: Brendan McGuirl- mentor, Rita Cooper, Whitney Chamberlain, Dan Gerges, Ruth Castillo, Nick Oberti, and Kyle Coolidge- mentor.

Fundraising has been key to the completion of this project. Our work has been supported by a wide variety of individuals and companies, but it wasn’t until this year that we had ever received a grant. The Woodard & Curran Foundation provided us with a grant of $5,000, which served to energize the group. In March, the Newman’s Own Foundation awarded us a grant of $25,000 for its Campus Community Service Award. It is a great honor to have received both of these grants. Winning first place for the Newman’s Own Grant was a momentous achievement for EWB-UMaine. It put us on the map, even on our own campus. We weren’t well known at UMaine prior to receiving this grant, but now we have been featured in a video shown between periods during UMaine hockey games, and people are starting to learn who we are and what we do. More important than publicity, is that the funds allowed us to complete the construction of the wastewater treatment system in our partner community.

The community in Dulce Vivir is made up of men, women, and children who have lively spirits, kind hearts, and an amazing ability to persevere. They have lived in conditions of poor sanitation for much too long, and we wanted to do something to improve their lives. According to America East Communications, “grant recommendations were based on the student groups’ involvement with their chosen nonprofit, and the impact of the partnership on those served by the nonprofit as well as on the students themselves.” As a member of EWB I have personally worked side by side with students, faculty, and mentors alike and I can say for a fact that this grant was well deserved. The number of hours that went into this project is astronomical, but everyone who devoted time to EWB did it because they knew it was for a very good cause. EWB is a fantastic organization that teaches people to be problem-solvers, to work well with others, to be leaders, to be listeners, and to apply engineering skills to real-world situations. The impact of the partnership on Dulce Vivir and the students of UMaine was incredible. Dulce Vivir learned how to take charge of a project and develop ownership. They also voiced their many thanks to all of us for helping them out of sheer kindness. It was evident that they were overwhelmed with gratitude. I feel that I can speak for the students of the travel team and say that we developed a strong connection to the community of Dulce Vivir. We wanted to do our best on the project and have it be successful so that the community would no longer have to suffer from poor sanitation. We developed friendships without borders.

EWB-UMaine students with children of the Dulce Vivir community.

In the end I believe that it all goes back to motivation. Without motivation nothing will get done, but this was not a problem for EWB-UMaine because our motivation was the community of Dulce Vivir. They are a community made up of people just like us. They are different from us in many ways; they look different, speak differently, and have a different lifestyle than us, but in the end we have the same ambitions: to live a happy, healthy life. As a travel team member I experienced the trip of a lifetime. I made friends with the community, I worked alongside Hondurans, I tried to speak their language, and I played with the children. I have been to other countries before, but never to work on a service project in such a rural area. To say it was an eye-opening experience would be an understatement. While I was away I gained an appreciation for many things, including the availability of clean water and sanitation in the United States. I personally have always wanted to travel to a developing country and get involved with an engineering project in order to improve the lives of others. I was lucky enough to live my dream and I know I can speak for my fellow travel team members when I say that this is a trip that will never be forgotten. Service trips like these have a way of really impacting the individuals. I know that our group of students and mentors really got a chance to bond over the experience. We were exposed to a foreign culture, foreign language, and foreign way of life, and we gained valuable skills and life lessons throughout our experience. Joining EWB-UMaine was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Whitney Chamberlain, a guest blogger, is a third-year Civil Engineering student from Scarborough, Maine and a member of EWB-UMaine. In her free time she enjoys running, hiking, reading, and spending time with family and friends. She loves traveling and looks forward to future trips.

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