Rowan students spending spring break making a difference in the Dominican Republic

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A handful or so of Rowan University students have gotten their typhoid shots, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B shots and malaria pills; agreed to lug 50+ pounds of equipment to an airport; and prepared a list of what to bring to a developing country that is low on water and high on need.

It’s spring break Engineers Without Borders style.

More than flip flops

Rowan’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders -USATM has a different take on the yearly flight for some sun, and team members are thinking more about life and death than flip flops and bathing suits.  Seven students—most but not all engineering majors—will eschew the scented sunscreen and warm water days of many of their peers and instead travel from March 17 to 21 to the Dominican Republic with a serious goal in mind: bringing clean water to the community of Valle Verde.


Part of Rowan’s longstanding EWB program, the students making the trip are:

  • Bethany Brigandi, 20, a junior mechanical engineering major from Glassboro, N.J., and president of Rowan’s EWB
  • Euver Joaquin (E.J.) Castillo, 25, a senior mechanical engineering major living in Merchantville, N.J., who is a native of the Dominican Republic
  • Andrea McFarland, 21, a senior civil and environmental engineering major from Mullica Hill, N.J., and past president of the group
  • Jasmine Naik, 20, a junior chemical engineering major from Hamilton, N.J., and secretary of the group
  • Kathy Orellana, 21, a junior early childhood and liberal studies: humanities and social sciences major from Hamilton, N.J., and project lead
  • Nicole Reilly, 20, a junior civil and environmental engineering major from Southampton, N.J., and vice president of the group
  • Cindy Rubiano-Gomez, 20, a sophomore, psychology and Spanish major living in Pleasantville, N.J., who is a native of Colombia

Chemical engineering major Jake Scaramazza, 22, of Woodstown, N.J., is part of the team but not making the trip.

Accompanying them will be Dr. Jess Everett, a Rowan civil and environmental engineering professor, and Cherry Hill, N.J., resident Angelita Fasnacht, a professional mentor who is president of Kosovo-Addis, located in Cherry Hill, and a native of Colombia.

Valle Verde is located about 16 miles from Santiago, the second-largest city in the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean country that shares an island with Haiti.

Lacking fundamentals

A small rural community of about 800 families who were victims of Hurricane Federico in May 2005, Valle Verde lacks a sewer system, and 85 percent of the residents use latrines that are in poor condition, while the other 15 percent use a field, according to McFarland.

The area receives water every seven to 15 days from INAPA (National Institute of Water and Drainages). Residents purchase water from trucks that bring the supply, but it is stored in inappropriate containers that contaminate the water, which promotes a high incidence of diseases, she said.

“The community doesn’t have access to water, so that’s the main reason we are going,” McFarland said. “They don’t have an infrastructure at all. They don’t have a school, roads, community center, medical clinic. Hopefully this will be the start of a very long relationship with them toward community development.”

The residents’ houses, in majority, are in bad condition, because they were built with walls of rustic materials, zinc roofs and no floors. During rainy seasons, the majority of households get flooded. The closest school is approximately 1 ¼ miles from the community.  Because of the distance, children risk many dangers since they have to walk along a heavily traveled highway. The men tend to work as itinerant vendors, selling such items as sunglasses town to town. The women tend to keep their own houses or care for the residences of others and for facilities far from their own community.

Collaborating

The Rowan team is working with a non-government organization called Caritas Internationalis, located in Santiago, Dominican Republic, which partnered the students with the community. The Rowan group will meet with several in-country engineering organizations to collaborate on the project. Before they head south, the students are contacting government agencies in Santiago to obtain information about water resources and to check whether their plans meet legal requirements. When they get to the country in March for their first assessment trip they will conduct water and soil tests and survey the land, determining the optimal solution for the community to have a reliable and safe water source. Rowan’s EWB team will explore piping water from local reservoirs, rainwater catchment, an infiltration basin and wells as options for water access.

While Rowan EWB will address quality of life issues starting with water access, team members plan to eventually organize groups within the community and foster an infrastructure that includes a multipurpose community center (clinic, pharmacy), sewage system, school, and improved roads.

“Without basic services, proper education, and organization of the community, it is impossible for this community to reach its full development,” McFarland said.

Reilly said, “We want to stay with this project for a very long time. We want to try to get clean running water. We want to build an infrastructure.”

Long-term relationship

Although EWB requires a minimum five-year commitment to projects, Rowan EWB envisions a much longer relationship with Valle Verde. Funding for the current initiative comes from the Rowan Student Government Association and from south Jersey engineering organizations and firms. EWB members also have raised funds through bake sales and pretzel sales.

Rubiano-Gomez, a native of Colombia, South America, will serve as one of the translators for the group. She said EWB was the perfect way to get more involved on campus. And she added she is most excited about learning what the community needs from the students.

Castillo, a native of the Dominican Republic who came to the United States when he was 20 to get an education and left most of his family behind, feels a special pull. “It’s going to be really cool to go back,” he said. You don’t see a lot of kids from my background doing what I am.”

Brigandi, who first got involved with engineering because of its focus on math and science, said, “I really stayed with EWB and love it because you get to help people by applying real-life engineering skills.”

For Rowan EWB students, giving up spring break—and volunteering in developing countries at other times of the year— is nothing new. Rowan launched its EWB chapter in 2003, and since then students, professors and professional mentors have worked on water and roadway projects in Central America, Africa and the Far East as well as in South Dakota.

EWB-USATM is a non-profit organization committed to designing and implementing engineering projects in developing communities around the world. Such projects include renewable energy, clean water supplies and sustainable enterprise development.  The organization’s volunteers also include individuals with backgrounds in business, journalism, health and education, according to the organization.

 

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