A team of five men from Warrenton United Methodist Church, including co-leaders, Dave Cooper and Mike Settle, Dusty and Marty Rhodes, and Jon Esse, embarked on a nine-day journey to Nicaragua last month that profoundly changed not just their lives, but the lives of hundreds of villagers who live near Matagalpa.
Warrenton UMC has partnered for many years with the Nicaraguan ministry, “Puentes de Esperanza,” which translates to “Bridges of Hope.” Run by native, Raphael Alvarado, the ministry is solely supported by mission teams that come from all over the world. Although the ministry involves a multitude of projects, from building schools and houses, to repairing school desks, the purpose of this trip was to upgrade existing water wells in remote villages.
Team leader, Dave Cooper, said, “The Nicaraguan government installed over 70,000 water wells years ago. Now many of them are contaminated, due to being open to the elements, or broken. Raphael’s mission teams have repaired and upgraded over 200 in the past three years.”
Marty Rhodes said, “The new well systems help a lot of people. With a few hours of effort, we can make a huge difference in the lives of these people, and there is a lasting impact – with clean water to drink the kids are healthier, they can go to school, and the parents can go to work.”
Dusty Rhodes added, “What we do also transforms people’s faith. It gives them hope!”
Upon arrival in the capital city of Managua, the team was greeted by their driver, Larry, and interpreter, Alex, who went everywhere with them. They were taken on a two and a half hour bus ride up into the mountains to the town of Matagalpa. They stayed at the team house, which is run by Raphael’s parents and small staff. The large, comfortable house contains numerous bunk rooms and can sleep up to 40 people at a time. The family and staff prepared their meals, did their laundry, and even brought hot lunches to them at their job sites.
On their first full day the group attended the local church service with their hosts. They understood little, but since worship is a universal language, it was very uplifting. Their next activity was a trip to the local hospital, where they visited the children’s and women’s wings. They handed out beanie babies and hygiene kits, which they had assembled the night before, including toothpaste, toothbrush, toilet paper, razor, soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, and dishwashing liquid.
The next day the real work began. As the team arrived at each well site, the local villagers, including children and adults, were already assembled, curious, and a little scared. Not sure what was happening, some of them struggled to fill their jugs before their well was taken away. The old systems required 30-40 cranks just to begin a meager trickle of contaminated water. If they stopped pumping the handle for any reason, the water would fall back down into the well, and they had to start over. But it was all they knew.
After the old “guts” of the well were removed, the new, modern, widely-used manual pump, that is completely enclosed, was installed. The whole process took 2-3 hours. Within seconds a strong flow of clean water was available and maintained.
First-timer, Jon Esse, originally thought that this was so easy that they should do more than two wells a day. Raphael explained that the ministry following the completion of each well was an important part of the whole process. Once done, the team spent time with the villagers, handing out gifts such as beanie babies, soccer balls, racquetballs, 5-gallon water jugs, and hygiene kits. One of the biggest hits were the instant photographs. Most of the people had never seen a picture of themselves. A particularly moving moment came when one of the local residents asked them to take a picture of an elderly woman who was dying, so that they could remember her.
Each of the nine wells was sponsored by individual church members, friends of church members, and another church, Aldie UMC. A commemorative label was placed with the donor’s name on the side of each well. There was a blessing ceremony after each well was completed. The first well was sponsored by a man who wanted to do one last good thing before he died. The team emailed him a photo of the well later that night. He smiled when he saw the picture, passing away peacefully two days later.
Some of the villagers made exuberant speeches in gratitude, others showed their humble appreciation with a strong two-handed handshake, so full of emotion that it made the volunteers’ eyes fill with tears. Dusty loved watching the kids playing with their beanie babies, knowing that for many of them, it was the only toy they would ever have.
Dave Cooper recalled his most memorable moment, captured in a photograph, of a group of kids who ran up to the last well when the water started flowing. “They were so excited,” he said, “You would have thought the water was pure gold! The look on their faces was priceless!”
The team agreed, “We were humbled by it, too. There were so many emotional moments. On the last day we wanted to do something for this young man, Chon, a 13-year old who works very hard to help support his mother and two younger siblings. He helped us every day. He was always smiling and laughing. The team wanted to take him clothes shopping to thank him for all of his help, but Raphael said no – he has to learn to earn what he gets. So we settled on a new pair of boots. When he put them on and stood up, he was beaming. It brought tears to our eyes!”
Jon Esse said, “I would absolutely go back. Everything went so smoothly – it felt like a well-oiled machine that had worked together for years. I was thinking that this was a dangerous country, but in reality it was just the opposite. Now I would vacation there. The people are very friendly and the country is breathtakingly beautiful. It was an incredible, life-changing experience. It made me more appreciative of our modern conveniences. Everyone should go, especially young people, to see how little other people live with.”
Dave said, “We do this work for the people and the kids who
can’t help themselves. We go for the people here who want to help, but they
can’t go themselves. I am looking forward to next year’s trip. By
then we will have a new well system which is less expensive, easier to install,
lighter weight, and we can do more than two each day and still have enough time
with the villagers.”