WE PROBABLY didn’t look like much — a merry band of American travelers lining up cardboard boxes and plastic buckets and handing them off to the men, women, and children of Gigante as quickly as we could before the storm rolled in. But I don’t think there was a person in this small Nicaraguan village who didn’t know who we were — or, I should say, who Monique Evans was. The rest of us were just the ones who’d answered her call to join SYRV X and complete the mission of bringing water filters to every family in this southern Pacific coast community. The cardboard boxes and plastic buckets contained ceramic water filter systems, and according to Marta Ruiz, the first woman in Gigante to receive a filter more than a year ago, they meant healthier lives.
Evans first came to Nicaragua in March of 2009 to offer her marketing services to a beach hotel in Jiquilillo, a village on the northern Pacific coast. During her visit, the owners of the hotel were digging a well at one of the community’s schools and she jumped in to help. When she realized the well would bring the kids only dirty water, her perspective changed.
“I just didn’t understand,” she said. “We have 20 brands of bottled water to choose from in the States and they’re mostly unnecessary. And here we were giving these kids access to dirty water. It was disturbing.”
Evans was determined to come back to Jiquilillo with a water purifier for the kids. She raised the money for a charcoal filter system and rounded up eight travelers to return with her on a bucket-list volunteer trip that wove surf sessions, yoga lessons, and volunteer activities into each day’s agenda.
“I interviewed everyone who was coming on the trip to see if they had any passions or skills they wanted to share,” she said. Then she tailored the trip to the group, which included an architect who built a storage unit for the water filter system, some surfers who donated boards to the kids who were trying to surf on freezer doors and logs, and an Adidas rep who brought 500 pairs of shoes for kids in the community.
Although Evans thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, this was only SYRV I. She has returned to Nicaragua 12 more times, bringing about 100 travelers with her. Within a year and a half, along with the help of the SYRV I through VII participants, Evans had donated water filter systems and four computers to two schools in Jiquilillo, delivered hundreds of water filters to individual homes in the village, and built a community center from a shipping container. (The container, sent from a group in Canada, arrived full of donations for the village.) Companies such as Billabong, Quiksilver Foundation, RVCA, Sanuk, and HardTail also provided donations.
While clean water was the foundation of each trip, the adventures continued to be customized to the volunteers’ skills and passions. This meant travelers led computer classes, beach cleanups, music classes, English lessons, surf lessons, and more. In addition, each group visited the local dump, where hundreds of families live, to cook lunch for the kids and donate clothing.
By November 2010, Evans was close to retiring SYRV. She traveled to Gigante for some down time and that’s when she met Ruiz. Over dinner with Ruiz and her husband, Ovelio, Evans learned that they spent almost a third of their salaries to have clean water on a regular basis.
“I realized there was no way I could not keep going,” Evans said. “Any challenges along the way I would just have to work through. It’s not about me.”
Another thing Evans learned on SYRV VII: She could empower travelers by encouraging them to raise money for the water filters they would bring to Nicaraguan families. Each traveler’s donors would be paired with a family in Nicaragua and receive a photo of them — a memento the travelers could bring back to their donors.
In 2011, the SYRV VIII and SYRV IX groups traveled to Jiquilillo and Gigante, bringing water filters to both communities. And that’s how it happened that my group, SYRV X, had the honor in May of 2012 of delivering water filters to the remaining 27 families in Gigante who lacked clean water.
We stood around Ruiz as she explained to the families in her village what a difference the filtered water had made in her life. My rusty Spanish meant I understood about every other word, but the message was clear: She was an evangelist for these filters, spreading word of their good and Evans’ efforts to bring them to the community.
After my fellow volunteers took each family’s info and handed over water filter systems, I got to take their photos. As we rushed against the threat of the approaching storm, it was an opportunity for me to look into each person’s face and snap a mental picture, too: the little girl in her frilly peach-colored dress, the woman who beamed without flashing her teeth, the big brother who held his sister’s hand protectively. I pondered what their lives were like and how the filters would help, maybe in a big way, or just a small one. I added the mental photos to the ones I’d already taken of the young girls I’d gone swimming with at the beach in Mechapa, laughing as they jumped the waves; the ones of the kids at the dump, standing in a line holding plastic buckets and containers for soup; the ones of the kids at the orphanage, reading the stories they wrote for my creative writing class.
My fellow traveler Matt Okahata shared his thoughts: “Why are people deprived of a resource integral to good health? … The moment we handed over the water filters, I felt we were improving the health and spirits of many individuals.”
Evans’ work continues. She’ll lead four groups to Nicaragua in April, May, August, and November this year. Visit SYRV.org for details.