News

September 18, 2012

Building Community: Students Help Provide Clean Water to Impoverished Families in Haiti

Sometimes small changes are the best solution to grand challenges. That’s what three students learned this summer when they traveled to Haiti to improve access to clean water for a group of families living in the village of Monchil, a suburb of Jacmel.

History major Sarah Nusbaum ’13 (South Salem, N.Y.), English and psychology double major Madeleine O’Neill ’13 (Katonah, N.Y.), and mechanical engineering major Jessica Rothstein ’13 (Narberth, Pa.) worked with Community Coalition for Haiti to introduce a water filtration system that removes turbidity and treats pathogens.

View and share more images of the project on Flickr

When they first arrived in Haiti, they found that the families they originally planned to work with did not have turbid water, rendering the team’s filter system over-qualified. But other families in Monchil were very interested in the team’s system.

“[The project] broke down and reinforced our faith in humanity at the same time,” says Nusbaum. “It reminded us that every single person needs to be a positive force in changing the world in whatever way they can because we have so much potential to do better than we are doing.”

Nurturing that potential is one of the primary goals of the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program. Engineering is the focus, but Lafayette believes that solving complex problems requires innovative solutions through contributions from both engineering and the liberal arts. Each Grand Challenges team receives a summer research stipend of $3,000 per student, a budget of up to $3,000 for project expenses, and on-campus summer housing after the junior year. Students also receive funding to participate in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program National Summit during their senior year.

The team bought individual filters from a local filter plant for the first group of families to fulfill their commitment. They then implemented their original filter design with the second group of families, which lives in a compound of shacks and cement homes across from their primary water source, the Grand Rivière de Jacmel.

The river, where many people get their water, is lined with heaps of garbage, which attract pigs and other animals. The team did not want to shortchange the original design by installing it without the research necessary to support its long-term maintenance and use, so the students developed a system based on a proven Centers for Disease Control model for water, sanitation, and hygiene initiatives.

While most people in the United States overlook clean water as an innate right, it is a luxury with dramatically positive effects for Haitian families, says O’Neill. Clean water is very much tied to money, health, and time.

“A lot of these people have continued to face challenge after challenge without any sort of relief,” adds Rothstein. “Hopefully our water filtration system will provide some ease for a few families. If they don’t have to worry about clean water, then they can focus on other things like food, shelter, and school for their children.”

Improving water and working around abject povertyHaiti was devastated by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2010, making clean water difficult to obtainweren’t the only challenges the team faced. The students also had to reevaluate their role within the cultural context of the country. For instance, it was considered an affront when the students offered compensation for help from the locals as the students were viewed as partners, not missionaries.

The welcoming nature of the people and their commitment to family and community were present everywhere. Locals eagerly taught the team about their lives and culture and volunteered to help with the filtration system. But the barbed wire, dilapidated buildings, garbage, stray dogs, broken-down apartments, and makeshift shanties are a stark contrast to the vibrant and colorful landscape.

O’Neill admits it was challenging at first to bridge the team’s disparate disciplines, but it didn’t take much digging to find common ground. In many ways, she says, it was the perfect culmination of three years of a liberal arts education.

“We are each sensitive to different aspects of the problem and the solution, all of which are important to maximize the success of the project,” she says. “It was a great experience to learn so much about each other’s disciplines and open our minds to different viewpoints. We are all very motivated by helping others, and this project was a wonderful opportunity to apply that side of ourselves. We definitely felt a stronger connection because of the real-world implications and the immense potential to do good.”

posted in Academic News, Cross-Train Your Brain, Engineering, Humanities, Initiatives, News and Features, Student Profiles, Top News

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10 Comments

  1. [...] Building Community: Students Help Provide Clean Water to Impoverished Families in Haiti [...]

  2. This kind of work, and the profound connection with local people that accompanies it, is only the beginning of the contributions these women will continue to make, whether in the US or abroad. They should be justifiably proud of their accomplishment, and we should be grateful not only for what they have done in Jacmel, but of the critcal role they will continue to take in our very needy world.

    says Joe Sacco, MD
    September 24, 2012 at 7:07 pm
  3. Jess,

    Thank you for sharing the wonderful pictures–it was great to see you return to some familiar locations from our Alternative School Break to Jacmel. You are an inspirational citizen, scholar, athlete, and LEADER. I look forward to reading about your continued efforts to work with Haitians who need access to safe drinking water.

    Shannon

    says Shannon Stokes
    September 24, 2012 at 2:03 pm
  4. [...] Building Community: Students Help Provide Clean Water to Impoverished …Lafayette College Campus NewsThe water filter system is a gift that keeps giving! In Monchil the families spend every day struggling to get clean water with many having to buy it because they have no access to this precious resource. Team Haiti (Jess, Madeleine, and Sarah) has … [...]

  5. Great job. Wonderful to know that there are such fantastic and selfless young people in the world.

    says CathyO
    September 18, 2012 at 9:30 pm
  6. [...] Building Community: Students Help Provide Clean Water to Impoverished … Published on September 18, 2012 in Filters Water. 0 Comments Tags: …, Building, Clean, Community, help, Impoverished, provide, Students, water. Tweet Building Community: Students Help Provide Clean Water to Impoverished … When they first arrived in Haiti, they found that the families they originally planned to work with did not have turbid water, rendering the team's filter system over-qualified. But other families in Monchil were very interested in the team's system … Read more on Lafayette College Campus News [...]

    says Building Community: Students Help Provide Clean Water to Impoverished … | Sunny, magic, water filter
    September 18, 2012 at 5:17 pm
  7. Jess, Madeleine, and Sarah have accomplished an amazing project. The water filter system is a gift that keeps giving! In Monchil the families spend every day struggling to get clean water with many having to buy it because they have no access to this precious resource. Team Haiti (Jess, Madeleine, and Sarah) has made a tremendous impact on their lives. You all are inspirational!

    says Kathy Leggette
    September 18, 2012 at 4:58 pm
  8. These girls did something amazing, they changed the world for the better in one small way. I am so proud of all three of them.

    says Mimi Cassidy
    September 18, 2012 at 1:39 pm
    • Mimi, you must be so proud to have raised such a compassionate daughter. It takes a lot of courage to go to Haiti. Sarah, Madeleine and Jessica, you did a great job and really made a difference in these people’s lives.

      says Karin Cassidy
      September 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm
  9. one word……AMAZING!!!!

    says Tony George
    September 18, 2012 at 12:06 pm
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