Stevens Student Gives the Gift of Clean Water to Guatemala’s Poor

8/8/2012

This summer, Stevens student Drew Capone opted for waste and toxins over sand and surf – and he touched the lives of almost 50 families in the process.

Capone, a rising senior, traveled to Guatemala City for a week in July to distribute homemade water filters to the squatting community situated on the edges of a dangerous 40-acre garbage dump in the center of the nation’s capital, where thousands of the Latin America’s most at-risk inhabitants live and work.

“I really felt like it was my calling to do this water filtration project for the people of Guatemala City,” Capone said.

Capone travelled to Guatemala City previously on a separate church mission trip about two years ago. At the time, he collaborated with a nonprofit organization called Beyond the Walls, which is dedicated to improving the lives of the world's poor and disadvantaged.

“I went to change the lives of others, but in the end that trip changed my life,” Capone said.

Soon after, Capone – just a freshman at the time – started doing water filtration research alongside Stevens Environmental Engineering Professor Xiaoguang Meng. Two years later, armed with an arsenal of engineering skills and knowledge, he returned to Guatemala City this summer with 55 others from his church, Hoboken Grace Community Church, and other churches in New Jersey and Virginia. Working once again with Beyond the Walls, five of Capone's traveling companions were Stevens students or recent Stevens graduates.

Water filters are vital possessions for the poverty-stricken residents in the heavily-populated area surrounding the Guatemala City landfill, who suffer from extremely poor sanitation conditions. Water-related disease causes the deaths of more than three million people worldwide each year, and millions more are hospitalized by illnesses brought on by limited access to safe drinking water.

A Chemical Engineering major, Capone built the water filters himself on his kitchen table, often with the help of his Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers, who also volunteered their time by organizing fundraisers to pay for production costs.

Using a design originally developed by Meng, the filters were produced for only $14.50 each and consisted of easily-obtained materials like plastic buckets, cloth, spigots, o-rings, and activated carbon.

Once assembled, the filters work by removing harmful chemicals and other impurities from water as it is poured through the device, improving the quality and making it safe to drink. The families in Guatemala City, for example, will pour chlorine – or ordinary household bleach – into their water, which disinfects it, and then pour the chlorinated water through the filter, which removes the chlorine. On-site testing showed that the devices do indeed cause a huge reduction in water contamination.

“These filters are barebones cheap, but they last for 15 years and are really simple to use,” Capone said. “Once they have the filter, the whole process only costs the families about $1 per year.”

In Guatemala, Capone worked in partnership with the Christian non-profit Potter’s House Association, which provides humanitarian aid to people living in and near the dump. Aided by a translator, he met with some of the families who received a filter as well as key community leaders, who are often the catalysts for change.

Capone was awed by the response of the locals.

“These families are used to their kids getting sick – once, twice or even three times every month,” said Capone. “I think they were in shock. This was all so new to them. They even called the water ‘sweet,’ which was amazing. If they like the taste, they’ll keep using the filters.”

Capone said the filters are especially important for families with children. Of the estimated 11,000 who live near the dump, more than half are children.

“In the U.S., if a child gets sick, it’s no big deal – they turn on the faucet and get hydrated,” said Capone. “But a lot of the kids on the dump are on their own. Most don’t have running water during the day and so much of what they put into their bodies is contaminated. It breaks your heart to see.”

Working with Meng and four other Stevens students, Capone wants to expand the scope of his good work for his senior design project.

“Our ultimate goal would be to develop a manufacturing facility for the filters right on the dump,” Capone said. “But even if the filters cost only $20 to produce, that can equal two weeks’ pay for some of the locals, so we’d likely need donations to subsidize the cost.”

As an alternative, Capone sees potential for reaching more of those in need through sustainable micro-enterprise. He said there’s a vibrant market for waters filters in the Guatemala City middle class, who could then create their own small businesses as resellers.

“The idea is to empower Guatemala City locals to manufacture and sell the water filters to the dump’s squatters,” Capone said. “I think for only $30,000, we could get a water filter to all 11,000 people.”

In addition to distributing Capone’s water filters, the group he traveled with to Guatemala City constructed and renovated a dozen homes, ran a medical clinic, organized a soccer camp and did other programs to combat poverty in the area.

“The main source of income for these families is picking up garbage on the dump and then recycling it or reselling it for profit,” said Capone. “It creates this huge cycle of poverty. Our goal as a group was to not only feed the hungry, but to teach them the skills to feed themselves.”