How is it that 840,000 people worldwide die each year from a water-borne illness? Twice the population of the United States lives without access to water! I found myself sitting there, staring at these facts along with countless others, in awe. Just questioning how they can even exist while I am sitting there with a big bottle of clean water right in front of me. That’s when I decided I needed to do something. I wanted to influence that statistic no matter how significant it may be. I needed to make a difference.
After extensive research, I decided that the most practical, efficient, and cost-effective water filtration system for development work in Tanzania were Bio-Sand filters
Now all I had to do was fundraise! It started with three filters for three families, which turned into fifteen filters which eventually turned into thirty filters! Enough for two nursery schools and twenty four families! Over the course of two months, I had overwhelming support from friends, families, University MEDLIFE chapters, and two incredibly supportive and enthusiastic elementary schools, one of which was the school I had once attended as a child. Not only did these two elementary schools raise over $1,000 but they also wrote countless letters and cards to the children in Tanzania that would be receiving these filters.
Before I knew it I fundraised a total of $4,350! It was more money than I could have ever imagined! What a reflection of the people I am so blessed to have in my life as well as a beautiful portrayal of the compassionate and generous world we live in. Sometimes people just need an opportunity to make a difference, a little encouragement to help change the world, a sudden realization of how the other half of the world lives…
As the ball dropped in Times Square New Year’s Eve, I was flying somewhere way above Africa on my way to Tanzania. Anxious, excited, nervous, overwhelmed, full of anticipation for the adventure that was soon to unfold and the lives I would soon be able touch in ways I never thought possible.
After endless preparation, the first day of the project had finally come. A group of forty University of Delaware MEDLIFE volunteers, Amber, Neema, and myself arrived to the nursery school of a wonderful quant community known as Kilema. Working hand in hand with the families and teachers receiving the filters, we used posters and picture games the volunteers had created to educate the community members on the risks and dangers of the unsanitary water they are currently drinking. Most importantly, the family members were taught exactly how to use the bio-sand filter and how to maintain it properly, so it remains a sustainable water filtration solution for years and years to come! The community members raised their hands to ask questions, worked side by side with the volunteers figuring out the correct choices to the activities we presented, and discussed with their neighbors basic hygiene, sanitation, and the importance of filtering their water. It occurred to me in that moment that this was the very first time they had been taught these facts that many of us take for granted. Without understanding what is causing them to get sick, or what significance invisible pathogens floating in their water has on their health how are they supposed to be inclined to use a filter in the first place? To see first hand these individuals fully engaged and enthusiastic about learning reinforced my belief that education truly is the foundation of any attempt in resolving a given public health issues in our world.
The following week Neema and I returned to Kilema along with the two technicians who had driven 11 hours to deliver and install the bio-sand filters. It was time for the very first filter to be installed at the nursery school. All the teachers and parents crowded around entirely intrigued, watching as the technician carefully poured the layers of sand and gravel into the hollow cylindrical filter. Afterwards the technicians, Neema, myself and a group of the family members receiving a filter all piled into the truck full of the bio-sand filters, squished side by side. We arrived to Deo’s home first, a tall quiet man with a infectious smile who shared a home with a wife, three children, and his mother. I was introduced to Deo’s mother who sat on the dirt floor, surrounded by banana trees, missing one shoe, with a bible gently placed next to her. She took my hand in hers and softly began to pray. When she had finished, she looked at me and repeated “Ahsante” which means thank you over and over. The other family members joined together to help Deo and the technicians carry the heavy filter and materials through the path that lead to his home which was made of scraps of wood, dirt, cement, and cardboard. All the individuals receiving a filter helped each other one by one with each of the installations until they were all finished.
Now, time to share my favorite day of the entire project. A few days after all of the filters were installed, we all returned to Kilema nursery school for a final inauguration and celebration of the filters. As some volunteers painted the water filters with the names of all the people who donated to the project, other volunteers spent time hanging up every letter and drawing made by the children at the elementary schools back in the United States on a wall in the classroom. After sharing everything with the children at the nursery, the volunteers and children sat around and wrote thank you letters and cards in return to the students back in the United States.
It was that morning, as I walked around watching the filters being painted, the colorful pictures being hung on the wall, the giggles from the children writing cards, and the smiles coming from the family members and teachers that I realized I had done something immeasurable. I had changed their lives, I had successfully bettered the lives of 24 families and 2 nursery schools with the support of so many giving people that helped me make this possible.
Joseph, an older man who had received a filter for his home, took my hand before I left, and told me “You may have two grandpas back in America, but you tell them that you now have one grandpa here in Tanzania”. I always try and read their faces, their minds. Some are friendly and appreciative while others are hesitant and skeptical. Often times I am left wondering; wondering the thoughts that are invisibly floating through our two minds, the unanswered questions lingering between our separate worlds, the curiosities that arise amid our unspoken lives.
Now, I know. I know that they care, that they appreciate our help. I have never been embraced, or thanked the way I was that final day by each person who benefited from this project. I would like to let them know that I was born into the life I was privileged with, that I had no choice just like they hadn’t. However, it is because I recognize how fortunate and blessed I am that I am here, trying to understand and figure out their story, their life, their mystery.
I returned to New York after 46 hours of travelling with a stack of cards from the nursery school children. The very next morning, I pulled up to my old elementary school with the stack in my hand and a big smile on my face. The principal went on the loudspeaker and told the children and teachers sitting in each and every classroom I was here! She asked me to read the letter I had written for the children over the loudspeaker. I shared with them not only my appreciation but the gratefulness of the children and their parents in Tanzania. What they had done as a school was not some invisible act of kindness, it was real and the children and families on the other side of the world will always remember them for what they had done. I hope children all over the world can be inspired to help others less fortunate and this project has inspired not only me, but I hope has touched the hearts of my friends and family as well as all of the children.
Along my journey, with each hand I have touched and every individuals life I have tried to help, ironically I am the one who has been changed. It has taken me countless of encounters and experiences to try and understand why I dedicate much of my life to helping others live a better quality life. The answer I seem to have been left with is one I am sure will continuously evolve overtime. What I do know is that I do it for both myself and for those I help. I set out to help individuals facing daily obstacles that seem to be unimaginable to many of us in an effort to satisfy my never ending desire of wanting to see the world through the eyes of others besides myself, to impact the lives of others, and to give back. I do it because I was born just like they were born; without preparation and without a say of where I would live, what family I would have, or how my life would be staged when I came into this world.
The truth is that these individuals living without access to basic needs such as water, or food, or medical care may be poor in wealth but they are certainly rich in humanity. They smile and laugh, they cry and they fight but despite our vast worlds apart we are all the same and in this cycle of life they are the ones who can use a little help this round. The reason I dedicate a part of my life to doing this work is because I believe in the faith of humanity. I believe that humans should help one another. All of us are just living and surviving one way or another but we all love and with that comes empathy; the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. So take a moment and truly believe in the faith of humanity because who knows, maybe in your next life you can be in their shoes…