Mercerians make lasting impact in Dominican Republic through water access work

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A group of people dig a trench, with a view of the countryside in the background.
The Mercer team constructs a new water system in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Matt Smith

This summer, 20 Mercerians worked alongside residents of Sabana Bonita and sat with them to learn about their lives and perspectives. When they left the Dominican Republic three weeks later, a new water tank and system were nearly complete, which would leave a legacy of clean water for years to come. 

Eleven engineering majors, five journalism majors and four faculty members participated in the eighth Mercer On Mission trip to the Dominican Republic, where they continued to serve communities in the town of El Cercado in the San Juan province.

The program was initiated by the late Dr. Michael MacCarthy, associate professor of environmental and civil engineering, and has been continued by Dr. Natalia Cardelino, assistant professor of environmental and civil engineering, and Dr. Laura Moody, associate professor and chair of industrial engineering and industrial management. Debbie Blankenship, director of Mercer’s Center for Collaborative Journalism, and Dr. Adaline Buerck, assistant professor of environmental and civil engineering and director of Mercer’s Cecil Day Family Center for International Groundwater Innovation, also went on this year’s trip. 

“I’d never done a Mercer On Mission before,” Blankenship said. “I was really impressed with what engineering does in those communities around El Cercado. It literally changes lives in those communities and leaves this lasting impact there. Those stone water tanks that engineering has built, those are going to be there forever.”

Students enhanced their journalism skills and engineering knowledge during two weeks of classes prior to the trip, Blankenship said. Once in the Dominican Republic, they rotated through three jobs: water system construction, water testing, and community surveys and interviews. The Sabana Bonita community had outgrown its 3,000-gallon water system, so the Mercer team helped construct a new spring box with an 11,000-gallon water tank, said Dr. Cardelino, who led this aspect of the trip. 

A group of students and faculty stand together, wearing matching green shirts, with a statue behind them.
The Mercer group is shown in the town of El Cercado in the San Juan province in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Matt Smith

Local engineers, plumbers and community members worked alongside them and completed a few remaining tasks after the Mercerians left. 

“Just seeing how eager they were to work made it easier to keep going after a long day,” said rising sophomore Lauren Folsom, a civil engineering major. “Hearing their stories about how this would affect them made it so rewarding. At the end, we were able to see an actual structure that we built.”

The Mercer group also repaired water piping that had been damaged during flooding in the Manyai neighborhood, where Mercerians worked in 2022.

“I think it was great. We accomplished more than we thought we were going to get done,” Dr. Cardelino said. “There’s so much of what we learn at the university that’s so theoretical. It’s one thing to tell people, but it’s another to actually show them and (get) hands-on experience. Working with locals day after day, learning how to do construction, the experience is just invaluable.”

Dr. Buerck led the water testing aspect of the trip. She did water training with the Mercer On Mission team in Guyana before flying to the Dominican Republic this summer. Students tested water for lead, chlorine, nitrates, nitrites, turbidity, pH, total dissolved solids and bacteria like E. coli. 

Some of the samples were analyzed on site, and some were brought back to the compound where the team was staying. That data can be used to provide feedback to in-country partners on changes that need to be made in water treatment, Dr. Buerck said.

A woman stands at the front of the group and uses water testing equipment.
Dr. Adaline Buerck trains the students on water testing. Photo by Matt Smith

“The main purpose of the water testing on this trip was to give the students the experience of what field testing for water would look like and the parameters,” she said. “Testing in the lab is quite a bit different than field tests, so getting to see different sources of water and what might be in them is really helpful and eye opening to the students. Here in the states, they don’t think about the water coming through their tap and what has to happen to it.” 

As director of the Cecil Day Family Center for International Groundwater Innovation, Dr. Buerck wanted to connect with the local community and its partners, get their feedback and see where help was needed. She is working to acquire a mobile drill that Mercer On Mission teams could use to drill water wells in remote locations in the future. 

Dr. MacCarthy had observed a need for mobility and accessibility work in the Dominican Republic and had asked Dr. Moody to focus on this on an upcoming Mercer On Mission trip, Dr. Moody said. Dr. MacCarthy died in 2021 while on sabbatical.

This year, the Mercer team used a survey developed by the World Health Organization to gauge the Dominicans’ attitudes toward disability. They also conducted in-depth interviews with people with disabilities or caregivers about their needs, expectations and desires. The Mercer students practiced their Spanish skills during these conversations, assisted by local translators.

“This year was our opportunity to fulfill what Dr. MacCarthy wanted to do,” Dr. Moody said. “I started my career working in rehabilitation engineering, which was designing devices for people with disabilities. I’ve had an ongoing interest in that type of thing, so it was a great fit for me to join that to what we were doing with the water supply.”

Walking on dirt roads, the students realized how difficult it would be for a person with a disability to traverse these rural areas. The Dominicans were welcoming, pulling out plastic chairs when the Mercerians arrived at their homes and answering their questions without hesitation, she said. Many had a bleak outlook on the lives that disabled people could lead.

A group of people sit and stand in a circle on a colorful porch.
Mercer students and faculty interview local residents. Photo by Matt Smith

Rising senior Timmons Johansen, an industrial engineering major, said meeting the local people and exchanging gratitude with them made a huge impact on him. The trip related well to his engineering interests in ergonomics, workplace safety and basic physical care.

“Those more direct one-on-one conversations were so impressive. They leave you so much to evaluate and take in and fully comprehend. The attitude of the people that we interviewed was very astounding and very motivating,” he said. 

The data from these conversations may be used for accessibility construction projects, such as wheelchair ramps, and advocacy and education initiatives on future trips, Dr. Moody said.

“I think there’s a chance for us to work with the community and people with disabilities to help educate the community about what they are capable of and help the community find ways to assist people with disabilities, so they can participate fully so everybody can benefit,” Dr. Moody said.

This was the first year that journalism majors joined this Mercer On Mission program. In addition to the other work, the five upper-level students documented the trip. 

They worked together on a few stories published on The Macon Newsroom website before the trip and on a multimedia project while in the Dominican Republic, Blankenship said. Each student also completed an individual project, which included videos, stories and photos that focused on the street market, water tank construction and impact of water projects in the El Cercado region and the disability surveys. 

The Mercer group is shown at the complete spring box. Photo by Dr. Natalia Cadelino

“I’m really excited about the work we did, not only in helping engineering on the construction side of things but also documenting the work,” Blankenship said. “I thought the whole trip was amazing. We labored with the engineering students, and I think that was really helpful for when we told the stories. We walked in their shoes and knew what it was like to commit to being in the Dominican Republic and helping these rural communities have better access to water.”

Rising junior Taleen Hanna, a journalism major, created a photo story on a Pentecostal celebration and the role that religion plays in Dominican life. She said taking an engineering course before the trip helped prepare her for the water tank construction and being involved in that work helped with her storytelling. She knew what questions to ask and what kind of photos and video footage she wanted to capture. She and the other journalism students accompanied the engineering students into the community to survey and interview residents. 

“Being able to hear these people’s stories and these experiences was really cool,” Hanna said. “We’re so lucky in the United States to have what we have. I can literally fill up my water bottle and not have to worry about the water I’m drinking. You can throw out all these facts, but I don’t think it has as much of an impact as hearing the personal stories of the community members. Being able to hear and tell those stories has been super impactful for me.”

The journalism students had to push themselves and be creative when adapting to problems that arose, such as limited internet access, language barriers and interviews that didn’t pan out, Blankenship said.

“Our program already has a heavy focus on getting students out in the community to do  storytelling and not just running through practice ideas in the classroom,” Blankenship said. “In some ways, the work we do in the Dominican Republic is similar to the way we want them to do reporting in the Macon/Mercer community. (The experience) helped them foster curiosity that I think all journalists and storytellers need.”

A scenic view of an area with lush green trees and mountains.
An aerial view of the area near where the Mercer group stayed. Photo by Matt Smith

In their down time, the Mercerians attended a baseball game, joined in a volleyball game with some residents, went swimming, played pool with some locals in town, went out for ice cream and pizza, and spent a night in capital city Santo Domingo, Dr. Cardelino said.

It was great to see the students grow, develop and gain confidence in themselves, she said. In addition, the Mercerians learned to collaborate and quickly became a team, Blankenship said.

“I loved spending that much time with those students. I feel like we’ll always have that special bond after this trip. We learned a lot from each other,” she said.

Folsom grew up doing mission trips in the United States with her church, and Mercer On Mission gave her the opportunity to serve people in another country and showed her how a civil engineering career could make a real-world difference.

“I’ve always prayed that I would have a job that would allow me to impact people, and I didn’t realize how civil engineering could help me do this,” she said. “This trip helped me see that I could use my future career to help people in different communities and my own community.”

Johansen is grateful for this Mercer On Mission experience, which challenged him and pushed him outside his comfort zone.

“Spending three weeks in a country where I’m not very comfortable with the language but still finding a way to contribute and be productive, it has made interacting with people now that I’m stateside easier,” he said. “It reminded me that just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s bad. It really lit a fire in me and got me ambitious to do more exploring and really go after my goals.”

A group stands in front of a stone water tank.
The Mercer group is shown at the completed water tank. Photo courtesy Dr. Natalia Cardelino

 

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