Out of Office: Volunteering with Engineers Without Borders in Ecuador

Out of Office: Volunteering with Engineers Without Borders in Ecuador

NOVEMBER 14, 2018

Julianne Page, a project engineer in the Portland office, was tying up loose ends on Friday before heading out of the office for a two-week trip to South America. It’s not a vacation; it's an enriching professional opportunity with a change of scenery. She’s traveling from Maine to El Progreso, Ecuador, as part of a team of colleagues all donating their time and skills with Engineers Without Borders.

“I first got involved in Engineers Without Borders as a student at the University of Delaware,” she says. “We had a college chapter. I was the president senior year, but I hadn’t been involved since. I had been thinking about it a lot and decided to see if there was a local chapter I could get involved with here in Portland, and there is; we have about 40 members and we support the University of Maine chapter as well.”

Her timing was perfect. The Portland Maine Professional Chapter had recently begun the project in El Progreso and sent a team to the site in January for an assessment trip. In the months since, Julianne and her fellow volunteers have been finalizing design and securing materials to construct a stream catchment as part of a larger potable water system.

El Progreso is a small community of approximately 110 people located in the dense cloud forest of northern Ecuador. The village has no existing potable water distribution system. Residents rely on a number of water sources including a semipublic water source near the community center — which often means a long walk with a heavy bucket — as well as roof catchments and springs on private land. For many, the privately owned springs are the most reliable and convenient source for drinking water, but access hinges on informal agreements between property owners and neighbors.

The project team from Portland’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders is working toward a system in which every house in the community has on-property water access. Julianne’s team will construct a catchment at a local stream as well as storage tanks at another site nearby. They will also perform surveying work for design and implementation of the next phase — pipeline construction and metering. They are working in close collaboration with a newly established village water board that will manage construction, collect payments, and hold funds in a reserve account for operations and maintenance.

While matching volunteers to projects is largely skills-based, Julianne says the project will still require a lot of on-the-job learning for her. “I’m in wastewater, which is not a huge lead-in for this phase of the project, but my experience will be more helpful with pipeline design in the next phase,” she explains. “I know almost nothing about building a stream catchment, but we’ll have a geologist and a dam constructor with us — the crew is not exclusively engineers.”

In addition to gaining skills, Julianne says there are many other opportunities to learn. Her team will be working with a local NGO to source materials and onboard translators. “I’m excited to dust off my language skills and work with community members,” she adds. “We’ll be able to meet the people we’re directly impacting with this project. There are also a number of unique problem-solving challenges in this work that are much different from the kind I do in the office.”

She’s looking forward to the physically challenging elements of the project, as well. Without reliable road access, the team will travel and transport materials on foot for a significant portion of the commute to El Progreso from where they’re staying in nearby Pacto. The crew will also build the catchment almost exclusively using hand tools.

Julianne’s motivations go beyond adventure and learning opportunities. “I feel like it’s important work,” she elaborates. “We have skills as engineers and resources living in the U.S. To me, it is important to address problems other countries have that they can’t address themselves, and if you have the skills and the resources, it’s important to give back.”

Most of what Julianne is bringing to El Progreso is mental: her knowledge as an engineer, her enthusiasm for volunteer work, and her desire to grow personally and professionally through the program. In her suitcase? Work gloves, boots, clothes she won’t miss if they’re ruined by cement, and peanut butter — a creature comfort she says they don’t sell at the grocery store in Pacto.


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