Engineering Good Will in El Salvador [Greater Milwaukee Today]

By Dan Muckelbauer – GM Today Staff

You wouldn’t expect detail-oriented, data-based engineering types to go all cross-cultural, change-the-world- one-village-at-a-time kumbayah.

But then Engineers Without Borders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison isn’t your typical 4-year-old organization.

Neither are its partnerships with groups as diverse as Rotary and churches, including in West Bend.

Nor are its members’ relationships with people in five projects in five countries.

Brian and Paul Fossum of West Bend were the latest engineering students to visit their support network, dropping in on classrooms at their old school, Holy Angels, Thursday. Current students contributed $400 to EWB and its El Salvador project in which the Fossum brothers are involved through UW-Madison.

“Everyone has that humanitarian feel,” said Paul Fossum, a sophomore biomedical engineering student, who was an active volunteer growing up in West Bend, along with his brother Brian.

“Our main goal is to improve the quality of life of the people.”

At times, that can mean jumping in a narrow trench, digging and sweating elbow to elbow with the people of La Granja, El Salvador, like he did in January with the 11 others on the UW-Madison team. He described the community as friendly and welcoming.

Brian Fossum, a UW-Madison freshman who applied for mechanical engineering, looks forward to going to the community of 2,500 next year to help with the wastewater treatment project. The team he’s on has been working on a better design from Madison in concert with the on-site engineers. Twenty-eight to 30 UW-Madison students are active in the project during the school year.

Right now, the gray water winds up in the dirt streets of La Granja and its sister community and is ripe with bacteria. The West Bend East graduates demonstrated a simple model of a gravity treatment system like the one in El Salvador to fourth- and fifth-grade students.

Nancy and David Slinde of the town of Barton, both West Bend Rotary members, brought the project to EWB-UW in 2005 following numerous short-term mission trips in which they made several contacts in El Salvador. There are about 200 EWB chapters nationwide.

Through the West Bend Noon Rotary Club, its southeastern Wisconsin District and the Rotary International Foundation, about $60,000 is being donated for phase one and two of the sanitary sewer and water project. West Bend Sunrise has pledged $10,000 toward phase three. Club Rotario is the in-country contact and facilitator.

Because of all the donated labor and resources, the $60,000 project would otherwise cost roughly $700,000, David Slinde said.

In a presentation last week to West Bend Sunrise Rotary, Chris Bareither, one of the four project managers with EWB-UW, outlined the progress and good cooperation extending across borders, including with the government. Having laid pipe in January, construction is still continuing, the doctoral student in geological engineering told the Sunrise members.

After the presentation, he said engineering is the easy part.

While all the team members have at least high school Spanish, the degree of polish varies greatly and the local slang can be tough to understand, not to mention communicating technical details, he said.

The most rewarding aspects have been building team unity.

“There’s volunteer members everywhere who want to help,” he said.

At first, the villagers were unaccustomed to foreigners and asked for money, said Bareither, who has been there three times. Then relationships were built and language barriers crossed, he said.

“One of the best ways you can build bridges with people is by working with people,” Bareither said. “Once you’re in that trench and you’re moving dirt and you’re sweating with them, you’re one big team.”

“They have a high respect for Americans,” said Daniel Burkhardt, an industrial engineering student from New Berlin, who has been there twice and also spoke with the Rotarians last week. “You’re down there helping.”

La Granja and its neighboring village are drawing residents because of the project and improved quality of life, Burkhardt and Bareither said. In the capital of San Salvador, few of the 2 million residents have sanitary sewer and water, they said.

Making the project sustainable and transferring maintenance knowledge to the locals are important aspects of the project, Burkhardt said.

With a diverse team, including students in teaching and health care fields who teach hygiene and more, it’s more than an engineering project.

“Education is key. Without it, they can have the best sanitary sewer in the world and it won’t matter,” Burkhardt said.

On the Web

For more about the Engineers Without Borders projects through the University of Wisconsin-Madison: