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Soccer balls, new beds and teamwork: How EWB’s trip to Ecuador was about more than just water

By Abe Danaher | March 25, 2019

The room was dark.

 As Evan Johnson and the seven other UofSC Engineers Without Borders members brushed past the cinderblock doorway and shuffled into the small one room home, they paused and looked around. A nightstand made of two-by-fours stood beside a rusted bed frame. In the corner laid pile of trash, waiting to be burned for warmth.

 The owner of the home stood before them. He was an elderly member of the El Cedro community whose age and body prevented him from working, so his survival was dependent upon the support of his community. And now, surrounded by all of his possessions, he thanked the EWB members there to help him in the only way that he could: by offering them a glimpse into the most personal part of his life, his home.

 Six months after returning from the trip, Johnson can still picture the room. But the moment afterward, when he and the rest of the members presented the owner of the house with a new bed, is something that he knows he will never ever forget.

 “He kept saying ‘thank you,’ “ Johnson says as he recalls the moment. “Like I said, there’s that communication barrier, but he didn’t have to say anything. We all understood.”

 EWB’s trip to the El Cedro village in Ecuador was filled with moments like this between community members and the organization’s volunteers. Together, they worked for 10 days repairing pipes that supplied El Cedro with its drinking water. But it was the relationship that the volunteers built with the community that EWB’s members will remember best, and that led to the trip having a much bigger impact on El Cedro than expected.

 “I’ll say, one of the best experiences students have there is they connect with these communities and with the individuals within the communities when they go,” says Steve McAnally, the faculty advisor for EWB. “And I think that that has one of the biggest impacts – really meeting and getting to know the people within their own cultural experiences over there.”

 This trip for EWB was their third trip to El Cedro in the past three years, and unlike the first two trips – which focused on assessing El Cedro’s water system – this trip aimed to implement what they’d previously assessed needed to change.

 To do so, all of UofSC EWBs’ members helped with the trip’s preparation. This included conducting experiments, reviewing case studies and preparing designs, guidelines and manuals. Then, a smaller “travel team,” consisting of eight members implemented what was prepared.

 On the most recent trip, this meant stabilizing the 16-kilometer water pipeline that supplies El Cedro with its drinking water. The team repaired sections of the pipe that had been damaged by erosion and a lack of support. But the most important part of their work was showing the community how to make these repairs and explaining why they were necessary.

 “The idea is to be a partner with the communities, not come in and say, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do, this is how we do it and this is what y’all should adopt,’ ” McAnally says. “So it’s really a partnership.”

By the end of the trip, the partnership was strong. But it didn’t start that way. “There’s always a bit of standoffishness when you first get there,” Johnson says. He explains that with students graduating and the yearly change in EWB’s leadership, new faces visit El Cedro each trip. Because of this, it takes the community some time to trust the incoming EWB team.

 Johnson points to a specific moment the first day when the mood between the community and EWB members warmed. At a public hearing, the group’s translator told the community that the travel team wanted to be there, not that they had to be there. As those words left the translator’s mouth, Johnson saw a change in the villagers’ faces.

 “It went from them and us, to an overall ‘us’ experience,” he said.

 This experience included more than just repairing the village’s water pipe. One day, EWB members were invited to play soccer with the village’s school children. They ended up playing soccer for almost two hours – and would have played even longer had they not gotten too tired.

 “They are good,” Johnson says through a laugh. “But playing soccer in work boots is hard, that’s for sure.”

 Makenzie Myers, EWB’s vice president, believes that the relationship her travel team formed with the village’s children was imperative to the trip’s success. She says, “I think the kids trusting us might have helped the adults trust us a little more, too.”

 Through the course of the 10-day trip, EWB’s members had to put both their soccer skills and engineering skills to test. The project may not have been as big as what a large engineering firm would do, but it forced all EWB members to take what they had learned in the classroom and apply it to the real world while also working to build a strong relationship with the local community.

 “It’s a much broader experience than just doing technical engineering,” McAnally says.

 And that was never more apparent than when EWB’s members stood in front of a bed stand, encased by cider block walls, with the smell of garbage wafting toward their noses. They had already ensured the entire village’s drinking water supply, bought half a year’s worth of school supplies for the local school, and seen children’s faces light up as a soccer ball kissed the twine of a goal. But as they held a new bed – one that they had bought, not built – they saw the true value in the trip they had taken.

 And they heard it, in a thickly accented “thank you” that didn’t need to be said.