WASHINGTON (March 31, 2009) – Spring Break for the average college student includes sleep or sunbathing, but not service. For a more than a dozen students from the Howard chapter of Engineers Without Borders, the March recess was spent giving back to two communities in Kenya and Brazil. The communities expressed gratitude, but so did the student volunteers as they gained tremendously from the experience of serving while learning.

Mission to Kenya

The 10-member delegation including students and advisors arrived Sunday, March 15, after a 24-hour flight and an 8-hour ride by minivan to the rural community of Nandi Hills more than 200 miles from Nairobi. They have met with elders and church leaders to listen to their needs and grasp their vision for the village. The students have also walked throughout the community to greet the people including scores of children.

EWB-HU is partnering with Build the Village, a local organization, led by James Esendi, the pastor of the local church and the acting director of the Build a Village project, in Choimim, Kenya.

The 3-5 year commitment is a multi-pronged effort to bring solutions to a number of areas of critical need including environment (waste management), energy, health, water, education and infrastructure.

“The mission to Kenya exemplifies service-learning at its best,” said EWB-HU faculty advisor John Tharakan, Ph.D. “It allows students to apply theoretical foundations gained at Howard, assess local problems, and arrive at solutions that are sustainable, acceptable to the community and beneficial both to their own development and that of the community.”

Howard students worked at Noel Academy, a Build the Village-affiliated school. The Kenyan Ministry of Education has issued several warnings to the school’s kitchen because of its lack of ventilation and other structural violations.

Dr. Tharakan, the students and two members of the community dismantled the old kitchen. They have expanded it by 5-ft and raised the roof to provide a 1-foot ventilation space. They worked through the afternoon downpour and well after sunset using flashlights to add a roof to the structure. The scope of work includes other education and labor-intensive activities to improve the Build a Village campus and the quality of life for the community.

“I am very happy the students were able to expand the kitchen,” Esendi said. “The ladies that cook for the school children told me they were going to go blind working in the kitchen. I told them don’t worry.”

Esendi admits he did not know how the kitchen would be fixed, but said he had faith that the school would get a temporary structure.

“I am thankful to the students who completed the kitchen in less than two days,” he added.

While visiting a nearby high school the team of young engineers realized the piping structure for the school’s well, their only source of water, was malfunctioning and needed work. That afternoon, they traveled to a hardware store more than 10 miles away to secure the appropriate pipes and fixtures. By noon the next day the high school students were able to get a steady stream of water from the well. The look on their face was one of exhilaration.

Photo by Jose F. Paranagua
Civil Engineering student Aaron Johnson distributes toothbrushes in Brazil.

The Brazil Mission

A second envoy including seven students and two advisors from EWB-HU also journeyed to Salvador Bahia, Brazil. They were eager to begin their physical site assessment of a modest and dilapidated community center – Instituto de Cultura Brasil Italia Europa (I.C.B.I.E) for future renovations, and to evaluate the socioeconomic conditions of residents living in the distressed peninsula District of Ribeira.

The 9-member team were guests of Roy Zimmerman, Pietro Gallina and Pietro’s wife Marlene who own and operate I.C.B.I.E. The institute provides an opportunity for the disadvantaged youth and residents of Salvador to participate, free of charge, in formal classes ranging from computer technology, English, Italian, Capoeira, hapkido, visual arts, theater, and music. This unique facility provides rare access to educational and artistic skills that will permit its citizens to obtain meaningful employment and escape the vicious cycle of poverty and violence endemic to that region of Brazil.

“Student volunteerism at Howard has found expression on the world stage, particularly for its underdeveloped and disfranchised communities,” said faculty mentor Brian Stephenson, PE. “Thanks to the support of the university, at all levels, and the life-long dedication of others, the mission of Howard to create and send forth global leaders for tomorrow has been elevated to a new benchmark.”

The Institute is in critical need of an overall electrical utility upgrade, interior and exterior architectural repair, as well as the construction of a new roofing system to cover an existing open courtyard. Such a structure would create functional space that would allow I.C.B.I.E. to continue conducting their much-needed cooperative activities during Salvador’s torrential seasonal rains.

While on the ground, EWB-HU members performed diligent site documentation of all existing architectural, electrical, water supply and sanitation conditions serving the main Institute building and an adjacent hostel where the team members resided during their mission. The group also toured two poverty-stricken areas rarely witnessed by foreigners. In those areas, the students participated in the Bahian government sponsored graffiti program to beautify many of the cities doleful dwellings and public structures.

The Howard students’ rigorous service-learning itinerary also included visits to the Federal University of Bahia, and the Pan American Middle/High School of Bahia. The team of engineers and architects also toured Bahia’s water and sanitation agency (EMBASA) to gain a better understanding how the primary sewage treatment station utilizes ecologically friendly practices to dispose of the millions of gallons of waste water generated each day in the densely populated region. The trip concluded with a community meeting held at the Institute where the students complied a detailed site assessment report for future facility improvements from input by those who directly utilize I.C.B.I.E. and need it to continue to serve as a beacon of hope the most.

The EWB-HU Brazil team has also entered a multi-year partnership with I.C.B.I.E. They will be working within the community over the next 3-5 years.

For more information on EWB-HU visit, http://www.ewb-hu.org