Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

In Depth: Water Work

While planning an engineering service trip to Belize for February break, Juan Cruz Mayol ’16 knew that no matter how many details he tried to finalize before arrival, he and the team would have to improvise to overcome unanticipated challenges.

In fact, they hit a hurdle on the very first day: Since it was Sunday, everything was closed in Belmopan, and they could not go to the hardware store for the supplies to build a bio-sand water filter at a local school.

Might as well go to the beach!

Come Monday morning, however, Mayol and the rest of the 11-person team made up for the slow start, left the sandy strand and lazy sunshine behind and got to work. In just three long days, they constructed a filter that left the school and local residents with safe, clean drinking water.

“Everything went really smoothly,” Mayol said. “We separated into groups to tackle different parts of the project, and everyone was happy to do what they did.”

In the past, Washington and Lee has partnered with VMI and the nonprofit Engineers Without Borders to do service projects in Bolivia, Guatemala and Belize. This year, the W&L club struck out on its own to organize the Belize project, and faculty advisor Jon Erickson said the students — particularly Mayol, president of the W&L club — took the lead.

Other student leaders on the trip were Ryan Brink ‘18, Anne Jeckovich ’18 and Walker Brand ’18. They were joined by Charles Connellan ’17, Bennett Hermann ’19, Henry Schwartz ’19, Julia Mayol ’19 and Samuel Joseph ’19.

To plan the trip, Juan Mayol worked with a local non-governmental organization called Belize Basecamp, which facilitates mission trips and service expeditions in the Belmopan area. Belize Basecamp even rents cabanas, where the W&L team stayed, and offers a meal plan.

Erickson, an associate professor of engineering who has gone twice to Bolivia and twice to Guatemala, said the trips are always the highlight of his year. This year, however, the small matter of a broken femur prevented him from joining the group. Ellen Graap Loth, an environmental and sustainability consultant with a Charlottesville company, went along as the advisor.

“My impression was that they were very organized, they had a very specific mission in mind, and they took it to the level of delegating different jobs to different people,” she said. “If they needed me, I could chime in and add some guidance or advice, but honestly, they ran the mission.”

The bio-sand filter consists of a large concrete container filled with layered materials. The bottom layer is made up of pebbles, and the materials progressively decrease in size until the top layer is made up of very fine sand. As water passes through the sand, it is cleansed of viruses. Over time, beneficial bacteria grow in the filter and kill bad bacteria. Graap Loth said these filters mimic how the earth itself filters water when it rains.

The team had to purchase all of the supplies they needed in Belize — because they (obviously) could not travel with gravel, and because their goal is to show locals how they can build bio-sand water filters themselves using locally obtainable materials. The team left manuals to walk villagers through the process of building more bio-sand filters.

When work began in earnest, the crew broke into two groups that Annie Jeckovich ’18 said they jokingly called Team Build and Team Sift. Team Build constructed the frame of the filter using more than 100 cinderblocks, while Team Sift prepared the fillers.

Jeckovich said villagers stopped to watch them work, including a little kid named David who was fascinated by the process. At the end of each day, the students had the energy only to shower, eat dinner, play cards and collapse into hammocks.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the students completed the water filter and surveyed their work. Using leftover cinderblocks, they helped some residents build steps for the school. With their jobs completed, the team members watched as ominous storm clouds rolled in, promising rain.

“It was a really fun time, and it was a really rewarding experience,” Jeckovich said. “We could see there would be an immediate benefit to the community.”

Jeckovich, who will be co-president of the club next year, said they are thinking about returning to Belize to do another service project. Mayol will graduate this year and move back to his home country of Argentina to work as an engineer, something he has wanted to do since he was a 3-year-old playing with Legos and puzzles.

“You get personal satisfaction out of helping others,” Mayol said. “I still get emails from the locals saying they are super thankful.”

To learn more about Washington and Lee’s engineering service club, go to ewb.wlu.edu.

— Lindsey Nair | lnair@wlu.edu