It Takes a Village: Stevens Alumnus Builds Water Well in Kenya

6/28/2012

Rick Kuehn ’01 has had many defining moments in his life. For more than six years, he served on active duty with the Air Force and had a host of duties while deployed: a C-17 instructor pilot; chief of tactics in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; and chief of squadron current operations. The day after his active duty ended, he was commissioned as a major into the Air Force Reserves. He’s also served as a disaster responder with the American Red Cross of Greater New York, currently instructing their disaster training classes.

But one recent memory stands out: sitting on the floor, in a modest home in the village of Kipingi, located in southwestern Kenya, peeling a potato-like vegetable for dinner while a sudden but fierce thunder and hail storm erupted outside. He recalls the residents of the home laughing at the sight of this man sitting cross-legged, holding a knife in one hand and cutting into the vegetable. There were not enough chairs to accommodate Kuehn and his companion, so the two Americans opted to sit on the floor while the residents sat comfortably in chairs. The gesture showed the Kenyan people that these visitors to their home and country had respect for them, that these guests weren’t out to pity them, but simply wanted to help.

Kuehn, who grew up in Hackettstown, N.J., is a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders Northern New Jersey (EWB-NNJ) chapter, a volunteer organization whose mission is to “implement sustainable development projects in communities around the world with the purpose to improve the standard of living and to empower communities.’’ The national group was started in 2000 when a civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder met a Belize Ministry of Agriculture representative by chance. Today, more than 12,000 students, faculty and professionals belong to EWB-USA, the parent organization.

The NNJ chapter’s latest labor of love is the Kipingi Community Water Project, where the group designed and constructed a well to provide clean drinking water for people in the Kipingi village and nearby areas, which suffer from a shortage of potable water. Previously, the community dug shallow wells that evaporate during the dry seasons or members used contaminated and muddy water from seasonal rivers and springs, which results in a prevalence of dehydration and diseases like diarrhea, cholera and typhoid.

The new well, completed earlier this year, reaches 100 meters (about 328 feet) into the earth and will supply water to those in the village, two nearby schools and other surrounding areas. Kuehn estimates that more than 1,700 people will be able to use this well, which is vital during the two dry seasons of October-November and January-March.

Kuehn spent four weeks this past January and February in Kipingi, ensuring that the well was constructed and operational and that the locals could maintain it if problems arise. And, he said, as these things go, of course there were problems.

“The first two weeks, there was a lot of drilling, a lot of meeting people. During the first installation of the pump, there was a problem’’ and the pump was off by five degrees. But the goof was a blessing, in a way, because dozens of villagers came by to help fix the mistake, thereby allowing them to become fully engaged in the project. “Mistakes are OK if you learn from them,’’ Kuehn said. He left the villagers with a working well and the knowledge of how to maintain and service it if another problem comes up.

While at Stevens, Kuehn was on the varsity fencing team, belonged to Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity, and was a member of the Air Force ROTC program. After earning his degree in computer engineering at Stevens, Kuehn served in the Air Force for almost six and a half years. As a C-17 pilot, he led a crew of five, and was responsible for up to 50 tons of cargo and more than 100 passengers. But amid the hustle and bustle of a busy military life – one year he spent 285 days away from home -- he felt he was missing something, the use of his engineering skills.

“It was purely for selfish reasons that I began working with EWB. I wanted to develop the engineering skills that I had let slip,’’ he said. “I really hadn’t been engaged with engineering except through reading about it. I wanted to do something with my life. And I wanted to tell the story, to engage people in a real view of the world.’’

Due to his military career, he’s traveled into hundreds of places all over the world, including Irag, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Quatar, India and Myanmar, among others. While with the Reserves, he’s been deployed to Incirlik, Turkey, and Homestead, Fla. Currently, he is an operations officer in a contingency response unit, the 512th Airlift Control Flight. He describes his unit as a “911 Responder,’’ meaning that if there is a need for an operational airport anywhere in the world, the team has 24 hours to assemble, 12 hours to be packed and on the plane, and 40 minutes after landing to have the airfield operational. One recent deployment was in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He’s earned five Air Medals, each signifying at least 20 combat missions.

He stumbled across EWB in October 2009, about two years after leaving active duty with the Air Force. While in Bishkek, his office had the lead responsibility for determining where relief flights could land after the 2005 Pakistan earthquake. He saw up-close the need for relief efforts from this assignment and others like it, and began to think about one day volunteering to help. He discovered more about EWB and the Red Cross, and found EWB’s work and mission “unique and very cool.’’ Working with the group in Kenya would allow Kuehn the opportunity to “have a real experience. This was not going to be like going on a safari, although that’s cool, too.’’ It was also going to bring up some self-questioning. “After being out of school for so long, I had to ask myself, ‘What do I bring to the table?’ ’’

Years later, he’s more than pleased with his entire experience. “This has allowed me the chance to give back to engineering by doing projects, by building something,’’ he said. “It turns out that I do bring something to the table,’’ he said, while laughing slightly.

Kuehn enjoys the work so much that, in April 2012, he was appointed president of EWB-NNJ, a one-year position. He took over from Chloe Weck Maietta, who graduated from Stevens in 2007. Greg Maietta, Chloe’s husband and a Stevens grad from Class of 2007, was also appointed treasurer during that April meeting.

With his EWB-NNJ duties, Kuehn keeps a busy calendar, but he also has to pay the bills. For the past year and a half, he’s been a vice president of SDA Consultants, a New York City-area company that designs telecommunications networks, security systems and audio visual systems. It was started by Sid Sardar ’01; Ken Adam ’03 serves as the company’s Director of Engineering. In July, Kuehn begins his studies at Marines Corps University Command and Staff College (CSC) in Quantico, Va., a highly-selective 11-month course designed to develop his war fighting leadership skills.

But Kuehn doesn’t see his work with EWB-NNJ ending anytime soon. The group has about 50 members, 30 of whom are active, and Kuehn doesn’t want to lose their activism. They’re still deciding what project to do next, but the chapter is committed to monitoring the Kipingi Community Water Project for the next two years, which probably means another trip to Kenya. And in today’s technology-driven world, Kuehn and others can web conference from anywhere to stay connected to the group and its projects. “It’s a wild world where I can be in a field in Kenya and work just as effectively as I can at my desk in Manhattan,’’ he said.

Even with such a full plate, Kuehn is humble and quickly points out how his Stevens education has helped him.

“Today, I more than appreciate the education I received at Stevens. It was intense and it was broad-based, and I feel like I really got it all in terms of variety. Stevens taught me to ask the right questions, it taught me an engineering mind-set. And that’s helped me in the Air Force and in business. It applies everywhere,’’ Kuehn said.

If you would like to volunteer with EWB-NNJ, would like more information about, or to help with the Kipingi Water Community Project, contact Kuehn at 917-512-5589 or visit http://ewbnnj.org or contact him at rick@rickkuehn.com