Rotary Helps Bring Suffield and Guatemala Together

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Photo provided by the authors

Rotaran Rick Lawrence and his wife Erin, with Rotarians from La Antiqua Rotary Club and members of the village of Xetonox, celebrate the completion of the village water system at a typical household.

This past month the Suffield Rotary assisted the Suffield Players. Although the Players had to postpone their performance schedule, they could not postpone needed electrical improvements to historic Mapleton Hall. With the loss of revenue from plays, the group looked to the Rotary for assistance. After procuring a $1,500 grant from its district, the Suffield Rotary pledged up to $4,100, the anticipated full cost of the entire project. The grant will hopefully allow the work to proceed soon, and it will be completed by the time the pandemic allows the theater to reopen, hopefully in the spring.

In addition to helping local projects, the Suffield Rotary participates in efforts around the world, including Rotary’s well-publicized Polio Eradication Initiative, which has reduced polio cases by 99.9 percent since 1979. During that time, Rotary members clubs and Rotary International have contributed more than $1.8 billion, helping to immunize more than 2.5 billion children in 122 countries. Less known is Rotary’s commitment to providing safe water to areas in need. And to put that need into perspective, while the death toll from Covid-19 is horrific, it pales in comparison to the 30,000 people a day, mostly children, who die as a result of not having access to safe water.

At a recent meeting at Bruce Park, the club welcomed back Rick and Erin Lawrence, its first meeting with speakers since the pandemic. As on prior occasions, the Lawrences came to report on the completion of recent water projects and to ask for continuing support for the work. Along with donations from 28 other Rotary clubs in northern Connecticut and western Massachusetts, the club’s financial support was instrumental in obtaining two grants from the Rotary International Foundation. The money is used to provide the materials for Mayan villages in the mountains of Guatemala to construct sustainable clean water, sanitation and hygiene projects. During the past thirteen years, twenty-five villages, with approximately 15,000 people, have had their lives dramatically improved by the project.

As historically is the case, before each completed project, women and children must walk mountain terrain from the village, 20 minutes each way, four to six times per day, to obtain water from streams. The water is carried in containers weighing twenty-five pounds or more. The streams are often contaminated, requiring the water to be boiled before consuming. Furthermore, for thousands of years villagers would cook using open fires on a raised pedestal, filling the rooms with smoke, causing irreparable lung damage to children strapped to their mothers’ backs, causing eye and respiratory problems. This also creates the inevitable chance of burns from sparks and tipped boiling water. Pre-project, each household used a “toilet” composed of a hole in the ground, which is a concrete toilet surrounded by plastic supported by bamboo posts. 

This all changes for one to three isolated villages selected yearly to be the beneficiary of the projects, which were completed with help from ALDEA, an on-site non-government organization (NGO) partner associated with the project, and The Rotary Club of La Antigua, Guatemala. While Rotary funds are used to pay for materials, all labor is provided by villagers, allowing them to learn how to maintain the pipe systems themselves in the future. In addition to a complete water system with distribution piping and a chlorination device, funds pay for gray water filters (grease traps) and vented, improved, pit latrines (toilets).   

Furthermore, using funds provided by ALDEA, new, safe, fuel-efficient cook stoves have been constructed in each of these households. The La Antigua Rotary visits on a regular basis, assisting ALDEA with the required education and training sessions for sanitation, hygiene, nutrition and agricultural topics. Last year the village of Chajalajya received the second solar-powered pumping system, reducing potential air pollution and eliminating the need for residents to pay for fuel to operate a back-up diesel generator to power the electric pump.

As they do each year, this winter the Lawrences participated in the dedication ceremonies for the three villages which were the recipients of last year’s projects. At each dedicatory ceremony, the village’s water committee received an engraved plaque with the names of all contributing Rotary clubs and organizations. So, the next time you are walking in the mountains of Guatemala you may just see a plaque thanking the Suffield Rotary in a Mayan village.

More importantly, the changes yield immediate and continuing benefits for these people. Within a year of project completion, there is a 60% reduction in intestinal diseases, diarrhea (the second leading cause of death among children under five), eye infections, respiratory ailments, and burns. And, it is reported that the three villages now being relieved of their water-carrying obligations have exerienced a dramatic increase in village girls’ school attendance. With more time to work on the creation of handicrafts to be sold, the women help make the family and themselves more independent.

And you thought Suffield Rotary only made great barbequed chicken. 

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