Imagine giving up a coveted winter break for a foreign trip that didn’t include watching the world from a hammock and a white-sand beach. Take it one step further, and imagine paying $1,500 to work rather than to relax and party.
That is exactly what a group of ten Stony Brook University students and Distinguished Service Professor Malcolm Bowman from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences did during their recent holiday break. Along with students from Harvard and Stanford universities, who provided medical, dental, and other forms of assistance to villagers in southwestern Honduras, students from Stony Brook and Johns Hopkins University dug trenches in the hot tropical sun. The goal? To provide the inhabitants of the tiny mountain village of Guaricayan with clean drinking water.
Maternal deaths are a major problem in Honduras; an estimated 25 of every 1,000 mothers die in childbirth due to poor sanitation, sub-par medical services, and unclean water, according to data from the World Bank, one of the United Nations’ specialized agencies represented by 184 member countries.
Improving the quality of water in Honduras would lead to a drop in infant mortality by at least 50 percent, said Dr. Clifford Lo, who led the Harvard University student medical exhibition.
The Stony Brook students did not rely on any machinery to dig the trenches. Instead they wielded heavy pickaxes and shovels and toiled “all day in the blazing tropical sun, helping to dig a mile-long, 2-foot-deep and 1-foot-wide trench in the rock-hard ground to lay a PVC water pipe,” said Bowman, who is also the faculty advisor to the Stony Brook Chapter of Global Water Brigades. The Stony Brook group stayed in bunkroom dormitories at a lodge about an hour’s drive from the village.
The group also gave the villagers lessons on personal hygiene and sanitation at the local one-room schoolhouse attended by primary school-aged children. With the aid of colorful posters depicting toxic bacteria, the Stony Brook students presented skits to the village’s mothers and children, playfully chasing the children with the posters for an interactive and informative experience.
While in Honduras, the students also played two matches of soccer against a team made up of village youths (and lost both) and visited an orphanage of about 100 children.
“These are gentle people who have no resources at all, no health care, no money, no fresh water, who live a subsistence existence in earthen houses on the meager crops the parched earth provides,” Bowman said. “I’ll tell you this, working with the villagers changed the lives of each of us forever,” he said.