SIT Study Abroad alum uses engineering skills to fight malnutrition and poverty in Panama

SIT Study Abroad Panama alum Emily Legault with students in Sieykin, Panama

Written by Emily Legault, SIT Study Abroad Panama alum and current member of the Austin, TX chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

When I came to Panama with SIT in the fall of 2007, I had no idea that this initial exposure to poverty would lead to seeing the power that engineering and friendship can have on an impoverished community.

During my semester with SIT, I experienced poverty and its power to destroy lives. In one homestay, we lived with the Ngobe people, an indigenous group in Panama. My host family’s water came from a nearby stream, collected with old, moldy plastic jugs. Their food consisted of mostly boiled bananas and rice. They slept on wooden planks. Children were very malnourished and often sick due to poor water quality. I returned to the US knowing that I could not ignore the injustice and hardship that I had only begun to understand.

Determined to try to change what I saw, my SIT academic advisor and a Panamanian NGO helped

Emily and EWB members explain the new filtration system

 me to make contact with the small indigenous Naso community of Sieykin that had serious water quality, sanitation, and health issues. The community’s drinking water is contaminated with disease-causing pathogens, which cause the majority of the community to suffer from diarrhea and other gastrointestinal health issues.

Since I had been involved in Engineers Without Borders (EWB) for several years prior to my SIT semester in Panama, I worked with my Austin EWB chapter to initiate contact with the community in Sieykin. We quickly discovered that the community was eager to partner with us on a potable water and education project. When I first heard of EWB as a freshman, I was excited to learn that I could use engineering to positively impact people’s lives. I worked on water projects in desert communities of Northern Mexico, where water availability and transport presented significant problems for local farmers. I was eager to use engineering to help improve conditions that I had seen in Panama.

Students at the local school show off their freshly washed hands

After a year of data-gathering and paperwork, a group of eight EWB members traveled to Sieykin in January 2009. We spent seven days in the community meeting with leaders, analyzing water quality, surveying data, and visiting as many community homes as possible.

During the following months, we performed extensive research on appropriate water systems, developed health education strategies to fight sicknesses caused by poor hygiene, and communicated with the community to discuss future project plans.

After much hard work, the first phase of the clean water system will come to fruition in the summer of 2010. Together, the community and the Austin EWB chapter will construct the central portion of the water system for the school, health center, and 25 community homes. Over the next several years, all 500 Sieykin community members will have potable drinking water and safe sanitation conditions. Our aim is to prevent diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pains from affecting the Naso children’s school attendance, or keeping the adults from supporting their families and living their lives to the fullest.

I have been delighted and honored to be able to use engineering to prevent diseases and sickness,

Emily and fellow EWB members teach health education in the local school

restore livelihoods, and provide access to education and a better future. Through teamwork with the Naso community and other partners, we are able to apply our engineering knowledge and turn an idea into a reality.

We hope to leave something lasting and invaluable for the community not just with the potable water project, but by empowering community members to enact positive change in their own homes.

Click here to see more photographs from Emily’s trip to Panama.

Click here to learn more about the Austin, TX chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

This entry was posted in Field Notes, Homestay, Inspired To Act, SIT Study Abroad. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to SIT Study Abroad alum uses engineering skills to fight malnutrition and poverty in Panama

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    SIT Study Abroad alum uses engineering skills to fight malnutrition and poverty in Panama


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