As Ted Bakanas will tell you, going on a Global Brigades trip is an experience that sticks with you. On the plane back from his journey to Honduras, he was struck by the world he had just left. “I just saw everyone on the plane immediately whipping out their cell phones and checking everything,” the McCormick sophomore says. “I just realized how different the whole lifestyle is in Honduras…just the dramatic difference in the level of technology and the role it plays in your life.”
Bakanas’ realization is exactly the kind of awareness that Global Brigades seeks to instill in people. The largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization in the world, Global Brigades gives students the chance to create real-world solutions for problems that plague developing countries such as Honduras, Panama and Ghana. The organization is divided into different programs ranging from microfinance to architecture, all with the goal of not only physically aiding under-privileged communities, but providing them with the knowledge to give these communities enough autonomy to remain sustainable. The students involved in the Northwestern chapter of the Global Water Brigades have taken several trips to Honduras to help with projects such as laying pipes for direct water access and building water filtration systems, and will be returning to Honduras during spring break in March.
In the program, groups from different schools all contribute to part of a certain project. Students work alongside community members and an in-country staff to develop systems for better water cleanliness and distribution. This is especially a cause for concern in the rural Honduran mountains, where it is most difficult to get water spread out to different houses.
The students engage in several discussions with community members to discuss what the people there need the most. There is also an emphasis on sanitation education, and teaching basic cleanliness skills about teeth-brushing and hand-washing to community members.
One of the best aspects of GWB is how it is able to harness the talents of people with a varying degree of backgrounds. Bakanas, a civil engineering major, was interested in how the program would let him use his engineering skills in the implementation of a gravity-based mountain pipe system to deliver clean water to homes far away in the village of Los Parajillos.
“I’d always kind of been interested in service and helping people, and Global Water Brigades intersected nicely with that, just my interest in traveling, providing help to people who need it, and also the water systems themselves, and just the engineering and the creative process that goes into the thinking of a sustainable solution to these really tough problems, I find fascinating,” he says.
Education co-chair Emily Roskey is a human development and psychological services major, but after her trip to Honduras, she was drawn to another route. “I came back from the trip and I decided to minor in global health,” the SESP junior says. “I love working with people, I love looking at communities, and helping people and this is something that I want to do, so I was really empowered. It’s such a typical story,” she says with a laugh.
While the Honduran residents are given education and better access to potable water, Northwestern students who take part in the GWB don’t leave empty-handed either.
“It really just changes your mindset to think that there are so many things that you take for granted. The fact that you have running water, indoor plumbing, things like that,” says co-director and SESP senior Pei Chen. “And it’s expected. Our biggest qualm when it comes to that is whether or not we like the brand of the water we’re drinking or whether or not we think that the bathroom is too dirty for us to use, whereas that would just never be an issue in a lot of the communities we work in. their primary issue is whether or not they have the water.”
So a Global Water Brigades trip may not be the most laid-back of spring breaks, but moments like seeing the first water faucet turn on in a small Honduran village? For the GWB exec board, completely worth it.