Hope springs: Greater Madison Rotarians help make Guatemalan villagers’ dreams come true

The ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes famously said, “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the world.”

He was talking about physics, but the same principle is at work in our everyday lives – in business, in personal relationships, in charitable pursuits.

The Greater Madison area’s Rotary Clubs discovered the true power of leverage when they took roughly $15,000 in local contributions, collected from 14 local clubs, and parlayed it into almost $53,000 through matching grants that tapped into the financial wherewithal of the global Rotary Foundation and the Rotary District 6250 (Wisconsin and Southeastern Minnesota).

“Think about people who are 70 to 80 years old, walking with a bucket to get five gallons of water to bathe, to drink, to cook for a day.” – Enrique “Kico” Gandara. 

The aim? To provide a new well, water tank, and water distribution system to the people of San Rafael, Guatemala, a village consisting of about 100 households that previously had no reliable local source of clean water. It’s a project that’s expected to be completed this week and will make life remarkably easier for the residents of the town, who up until now have been forced to walk long distances to get safe drinking water.

“Think about people who are 70 to 80 years old, walking with a bucket to get five gallons of water to bathe, to drink, to cook for a day,” said Enrique “Kico” Gandara, a Guatemala native and Madison resident who first brought the project to the attention of Rotary and has been integral in bringing it to fruition.

Not only was finding water an inconvenience for San Rafael residents, using what was available to them also posed a health risk. If they weren’t traveling long distances to get water, they were sourcing it from on-site shallow wells that were often contaminated with animal or human waste.

According to John Olsen, another local Rotarian involved with the project, a similar project built in the village of Oliveros, which is about six kilometers north of San Rafael, has contributed significantly to local residents’ well-being.

“On our last trip to Guatemala, a doctor and two nurses sponsored by the regional Roman Catholic Diocese, who continually travel the area treating adults and children, joined us for lunch,” said Olsen. “The doctor commented that he had seen significant improvements in the health of the Oliveros children over the last few years, and the condition of their teeth was particularly improved.”

Modest contributions, big results

According to Olsen, the San Rafael well system is a medium to large-size clean water project. Many similar projects are simple residential filtering systems, or local wells where the residents come to the well to get their water. This project, he said, is somewhat unique in that it is a complete municipal water system.

Soon, treated water will be piped directly onto the villagers’ lots, thanks to a concerted effort among local Rotarians that involved not just their generous contributions but a generous amount of labor as well.

Indeed, if Gandara’s own experience is any indication, Rotarians appear to have a real appreciation for how small things can have outsized impacts – how a bit of leverage applied consistently and with care can make a huge difference in the world.

“I’ve been doing these kinds of projects for 23 years,” said Gandara, “and when you see the smile of the boy who gets an operation, or you see someone who gets a cataract operation, and it costs you a few pennies out of your pocket, it gives you great satisfaction.”

For Gandara, the contribution has amounted to more than just a few pennies. He’s traveled to Guatemala several times to help oversee the project, and Rotarians who have been recruited to pitch in have stayed at his nearby ranch.

One of those contributors was Janine O’Rourke, a Rotarian who works as a marketing communications manager for Thermo Fisher Scientific in Madison.

O’Rourke was involved in one of the early phases of the project, which drew on the efforts of about a half-dozen Rotarians who were charged with building a fence around the water station to keep local farm animals from damaging the equipment.

For O’Rourke, the project was a good demonstration of what can be achieved through grit and determination.

“You didn’t have many tools or even resources,” said O’Rourke. “Even digging the holes [for the fence posts], we had a couple manual post-hole diggers, but the ground was just rock solid, and they were old, and so one lady in the community showed up with what looked like a half a coconut, and she was scooping out as we loosened the dirt and the rocks.”


O’Rourke said she first got involved with the Rotary Club as a Rotary exchange student in Japan roughly 25 years ago. She said she wanted to try to repay the people who gave her the opportunity to study overseas and broaden her horizons, so she joined the Fitchburg/Verona Rotary Club about three years ago.

Currently, she’s involved with resurrecting Rotary’s short-term exchange program, which pairs students from different cultures and allows them to study together in their respective countries for a month at a time. But pursuing initiatives in the Greater Madison area and immersing oneself in another culture to complete a construction project are two different things, and through the Guatemala water project, O’Rourke found plenty of opportunity to grow.

“I would love to try to do this maybe every other year, be able to have an experience like this, because I learned so much about the people, their needs, the culture, the country, and even the friendships that you build by spending a week in 100-degree weather digging holes with half a coconut and such,” said O’Rourke. “You get back so much more in helping you realize the blessings that we have here in Wisconsin, as well as being able to apply it.”

Indeed, O’Rourke says that the experiences she is afforded through Rotary have given her a fresh perspective on the people and cultures she deals with in her job.

“Certainly, with anyone who is working in an international company, that’s a fabulous experience, because so often we’re thinking from our U.S. perspective and we’re trying to relate, and it can be really difficult,” said O’Rourke. “You’re working over email, you’re working across time zones, and I think it helps you to have a higher level of respect for people and cultures that are different.

“Some people get the opportunity to travel and have face-to-face meetings, like I do a couple times a year, but there’s many people, like my staff, that don’t get that opportunity to have conversations face to face. They’re always working over email and the phone, so it’s harder to have maybe the tolerance or the patience. … Well, once you can see it, even just from one other culture’s perspective, you can start to understand how you might have to do things differently in different markets and different countries.”

For Olsen, the Guatemalan water project provides as good an example as any of the kinds of things Rotary can do. He said the project started with the Rotary theme for 2008-9 (“Make Dreams Real”), which put an emphasis on reducing child mortality throughout the world, and helping to fulfill that mission has been a sometimes difficult, though worthy, endeavor.

“It is gratifying to see this project nearing completion,” said Olsen.

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