It’s been about 17 years since Ted van der Zalm and his wife Miriam, dedicated to delivering clean water and improving the lives of the poorest of the poor in the mountainous region of Guatemala, touched the hearts and opened the wallets of many Niagara residents, businesses and service clubs.
Their plans were, and continue to be, ambitious, but nobody who knows them doubts they will accomplish what they set out to do. There are at least 80,000 people in Guatemala who now have fresh, clean water at their door who can testify to that.
Some in Niagara-on-the-
Lake may remember the early days of Wells of Hope, when van der Zalm drove a small truck to local schools to collect pennies from students, the large fundraising campaign to buy expensive well-drilling equipment, the building of a permanent camp for volunteers, and the development of annual events to help fund not only the wells, but houses, schools, and even a medical clinic now under construction, which will be staffed by Guatemalans when it’s completed.
There are also sewing lessons, adult education and health and hygiene programs provided by volunteers to improve the lives of the Guatemalans they reach.
Van der Zalm sees need, not numbers — he and Miriam react to what needs to be done when they arrive in Guatemala each January, staying until the rainy season begins. And since that first year they travelled to the region, he says, “we’ve seen a huge difference. Lives have been saved.”
Wells of Hope, a Niagara-on-the-Lake-based inter-denominational charity, has drilled 26 wells in the region of Jalapa, in communities where previously women and children walked for miles to a source of water, dirty and bacteria-ridden, then carrying heavy jugs back to their homes, mostly rudimentary huts of mud bricks, and sometimes made of just branches and plastic.
Over the years, Wells of Hope has built and equipped 20 schools, and about 40 homes.
Many children, especially under the age of two, die every day from bacteria in the water, says van der Zalm. But with nearby wells, families not only have accessible clean water to drink but don’t have to depend on the rainy season to grow one vegetable crop a year, each season hoping there won’t be so much rain vegetables will rot, or so little they will die in the drought.
For communities with water, 12 months a year, families can grow their own food, and some will grow enough to take to market, says van der Zalm.
But he won’t be satisfied until he has given the Guatemalans the tools and knowledge they need to develop a sustainable life that doesn’t depend on others for help. His next goal is for seeds to be planted in Guatemalan greenhouses, transported from Niagara, to then be planted outdoors to produce sufficient fruits and vegetables to develop an export industry to Canada, where the growing season is short and we grow food items in costly, heated greenhouses. With clean water and a year-long growing season, “third world countries like Guatemala could be feeding the world,” he says.
But for now, this weekend, van der Zalm’s attention was focused on Packs for Hope, the backpack program developed in Niagara about a decade ago.
Sometime before the end of the year, a 40-foot shipping container will go by train to Montreal, and then by ship to Guatemala, filled with well-drilling and other equipment van der Zalm will need when he gets there in January, along with a myriad of other items to improve the lives of those he will reach.
Included in the container will be about 200 backpacks — about 2,000 have been shipped in the last 10 years — to be distributed to children in need. Shipping of the container is timed so that it arrives when van der Zalm is there, so he can personally ensure all the shipped materials get to the people “who need it the most,” he says.
With five children themselves, he and Miriam understand how much a backpack and school supplies mean to children, he says. Wells of Hope at one time collected filled shoeboxes to be shipped, “but in short order we realized how inefficient they are.”
The boxes, all different sizes, didn’t ship well, and the contents were not always useful to children who received them. The boxes and the contents were often damaged, and a lot of space was taken up by excess packaging, some of it for “trinkets and toys” that really weren’t helpful.
Backpacks are flexible and stack well together, protecting the contents inside. They can be new or gently used, and filled with school supplies (binders, notebooks, pens, pencil crayons, erasers, markers), hygiene products (toothbrushes, hair brushes, toilet paper), clothing, and possibly a toy or ball — nothing with batteries and no liquid or lotion that will freeze during shipping, he has learned over time.
“The plastic container cracks, and when it gets to Guatemala and the warmth, the liquid material ruins everything in the backpack and all the backpacks beside it,” he says.
They also won’t ship any toy weapons or soldiers, or anything associated with the military.
The backpack collection program is held at participating elementary schools in the fall. Not all schools join in — it takes a staff person to champion the cause, says van der Zalm.
This weekend, families gathered at the van der Zalm’s garage to sort through each and every item, to ensure everything in the backpacks was appropriate, useful and safe for shipping. There were also stacks of school supplies, clothing and toiletries to fill the bags that had less in them than others.
“The backpacks themselves are a huge gift to the children of Guatemala,” says van der Zalm, some of them donated by supportive families who will purchase a dozen or more at a time when they’re on sale.
“And their size allows you to pack them with things of real value to the Guatemalans,” he adds.
Some of the backpacks will be distributed by Niagara high school students who will travel to Guatemala, in groups that stay 10 days at a time, to work on building houses and schools, pitching in to help wherever they’re needed. Van der Zalm likes the idea of Niagara teens seeing the need of others in a developing country, and realizing at an early age they can be part of the solution. About 150 to 200 students volunteering each year can have a huge impact, he says.
Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Scott Maxwell has been with the volunteer project from the beginning, and is its chair. He is charged with fundraising and the day-to-day operation of the Wells of Hope, and as a recently retired high school teacher from Denis Morris, where he met van der Zalm, who has also taught at the Catholic high school one semester a year, leaving him free to travel to Guatemala from January until May.
Maxwell now works full time with Wells of Hope, and will be connecting with the public school board, hoping to get more of them participating, both in backpack programs and volunteering.
“The work is fun,” says Maxwell. “This is a joyful program. We love to see the look on the kids’ faces when they receive their backpacks.”
Theo VanderKaay is now in his first year of high school, but last spring, as a Grade 8 student at St. Michael Catholic Elementary School, he travelled with his parents and sister to Camp Esperanza, where volunteers with Wells of Hope stay in Guatemala.
While there, they helped move the mud bricks used to build houses for those in need. It was hard physical work, tiring, but also rewarding, he says, recalling one youngster who was so excited to see the young volunteers, he wanted to show them his home, which was made from branches holding up sheets of plastic. He, his mother and siblings ended up having a house built for them by Wells of Hope.
What impressed VanderKaay most, though, was how little the kids had — this little boy was wearing filthy clothes, and boots full of holes that were too small, “but he was just so happy. It made me realize how much we have, and the things we complain about, when somebody who has so little can be so happy.”
Theo’s father, Ted VanderKaay, says he isn’t sure the family will return to Guatemala, but that doesn’t mean they will forget the need they saw or stop volunteering —although he admits, it becomes more distant once they’re home.
“It’s just a matter of looking at what we can do here, and how we can be of the most help,” he says.
“Not everyone is called to help by going to Guatemala,” says van der Zalm.
“But everyone can help, everyone is valuable in their own way. Some families participate by doing this for Guatemalan families,” he says, waving his arm over the mountain of filled backpacks in his garage, waiting for contents to be sorted so they can be loaded on a truck to be delivered to the shipping container. “When the backpacks arrive, it’s like Christmas for the kids. We have volunteers who come from every walk of life. And while they’re there, they realize they really can change the world. But there is so much they can do if they stay here. They can still change the world.”