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Gift of water

MEDFORD — After returning from a weeklong mission to Guatemala last fall, a group of Medford Rogue Rotary Club members think about far more than a cold drink when they turn on water faucets in their homes.

They think about friendships forged, eye-opening experiences and about helping international neighbors for whom clean water was once out of reach.

Rotary member Tim Chesley and his wife, Eden Foster, spearheaded a trip to the Guatemalan town of Panajachel. While the official purpose of the trip was to provide 100 water-purification systems for three Mayan villages, the group says it came back with far more than it gave.

Traveling via a partnership with Woodland Public Charity, a nonprofit based in Kansas City that provides aid to regions of Central America, the group spent a week helping the earthquake-prone region where many of the underground pipes are broken and exposed to ground contaminants.

With polluted groundwater, lakes and streams, sickness from dirty water is a regular occurrence in the region. Most Americans can hardly imagine the day-to-day reality of not having access to clean water. But people in the poverty-stricken region where the Rotary group traveled, Chesley noted, earn as little as $2 per day and spend half that income on firewood for boiling water and cooking.

"Not having clean water can affect so many things. It affects the kids and education. A lot of times the kids get sick so often, then they miss school and can't get an education," Chesley said. "And then they spend so much of their income to buy wood just to be able to cook. It doesn't help to waste part of the wood to have to boil their water."

Perhaps more profound than a lack clean water, Chesley said, is the low cost of remedying the problem for each household.

Made from two five-gallon plastic buckets, a Sawyer camping filter, some tubing and a basic spigot, the filters are rated for up to one million gallons, which means the units could last the families who received them a decade or more for only $50 worth supplies.

Seeing families given the gift of clean water, often for the first time, was sobering, Chesley said.

He and fellow volunteers donated money for the cost of the filters and helped build and instruct recipients on how to use and maintain them.

"They tell us not to carry the filters for the women, to let them carry them. It's such a big moment for them, carrying their filters through the village. Others are watching, and they're so proud to basically say, 'I have potable water in my house,' " he said.

In addition to the water-purification setups, the group provided supplies for — and aided in constructing — a half-dozen high-efficiency stoves to reduce the amount of income spent on firewood.

A practiced bead-work enthusiast, Foster took donations from Fire Mountain Gems in Grants Pass and taught village leaders how, by sharing newly learned skills, to teach villagers and children to create sellable wares.

Providing for such basic needs, said Medford doctor and Rotarian Gary Newland, was rewarding.

"These are people who live very modest lives, and they are very poor. When you think about the fact that they use half their income to buy wood just to boil water and to cook, it's very rewarding to be able to give them something as simple as clean water," Newland said.

"Some of the people were really emotional. One woman lived in a hovel on the side of her mother's house and was basically on her own with her two children. She told us that having this clean water was so special to her that it brought her to tears. I think a lot of us felt like we got as much out of it as they did."

Foster, the lone female on the team, agreed wholeheartedly that the Rotarians got more than they gave. She and Chesley have made two trips to the region and plan to return.

"It's very rare to find an opportunity where you can have a direct impact on someone's life. We can all find ways to give money or sit at a booth or lobby a legislator, but to have something so direct and tangible is a very rare opportunity," she said.

"It's like a magnet that keeps drawing us back. It is true that it's very sobering to be there, but it's also joyful. These are people who work hard, and they really love each other."

Foster said she was grateful for the experiences and is eager to return.

"Where else can you go that perfect strangers invite you into their homes and share a part of their lives with you? And I don't think I can imagine anything would have as much impact as bringing water to someone who doesn't have it."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

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The simple water purifiers consist mostly of two buckets and a filter. Photo courtesy of Eric Hodnett
Guatemalan villagers listen to instructions on how to use the water-filtration devices provided by a group of Medford Rotarians, at right. Photo courtesy of Tim Chesley