Rhinelander native Zastrow making a difference in Guatemala
BY MATT PERSIKE
Special to the Star Journal
Mountains roll out under the rising sun and melt into misty peaks in the distance. The crisp morning air smells like breakfast—rice, beans, eggs, and tortillas—and remote silence is broken only by bleary-eyed conversation and the putt-putt-puttering of the approaching old red Toyota that will soon take the American students down dirt roads twisting through the Sierra de Chuacus range to Pajuya. A white church steeple beckons from the small village a few miles away, peering over trees and breaking up an otherwise green landscape. It is 7a.m. and time to get to work. For many people Guatemala is just the name on their coffee beans, but for Rhinelander native Patrick Zastrow the country has become much more. This is because Zastrow and his team have made it their mission to provide a clean source of water to residents of rural Guatemalan villages. Members of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, they have been working together with local partners to build filters and pipelines in the high-altitude municipality of Joyabaj.
Beginning at an aquifer in the mountainside, a pipeline was laid as deep as a meter underground, carrying water to Pajuya, a town of 1000 residents, and branching off the mainline to taps outside the homes of 50 families who agreed to help pay for and maintain the new infrastructure. Pressurized underground water is directed into the catchment box through a filter of stones, fine sand, and clay. The box is a cubic meter in volume, meaning that at any time it can carry up to 264 gallons of clean water. Residents previously may have had to spend several hours traveling to distant water sources, time that is precious to members of a subsistence farming community.
Integral to the design and construction of the pipeline is the 21 year-old Zastrow, a graduate of Rhinelander High School who now attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Intending to major in engineering, he first heard about Engineers Without Borders (EWB) near the end of his second year in Madison. Saying he went to an informational meeting purely out of curiosity, Zastrow’s interest was quickly sparked by the prospect of real hands-on engineering experience in a charitable capacity, as well as the opportunity to see a different country.
EWB is an organization that seeks to remedy various problems in underdeveloped areas worldwide, targeting deficiencies in energy, sanitation, or as in this case, access to clean water. The program cooperates with local groups and citizens to construct sustainable engineering developments. Run by professionals, it largely employs the volunteer service of university students, providing them with a unique chance to transform communities while gaining experience in leadership roles.
Studying at a school with such a massive engineering program, Zastrow feels fortunate to have been able to distinguish himself enough to be accepted into the Guatemala project’s traveling team. “I put in a travel application, and although many people applied for this project, my Spanish abilities helped me to be chosen for the group.” Although the project takes place in a region that largely speaks K’iche’, a Mayan dialect, Zastrow has had ample opportunity to use and refine the language abilities that gave him an advantage over so many of his peers.
The project has been run in conjunction with Agua Para La Salud, a Guatemalan non-profit committed to water sanitation. They have worked with local authorities for long-term maintenance of the pipeline and to help establish regulations for water use in a country that has very few water meters, which has resulted in a lot of wasted water. Local residents also performed much of the back-breaking labor required for the construction of the pipeline, specifically by digging a trench from the water source to the village 3 kilometers away. “It’s not just about us helping the residents,” Zastrow is eager to emphasize, “It’s a partnership. This wasn’t just EWB’s project—it was Pajuya’s.”
In the past year the Guatemala group has traveled to the country on three occasions. Zastrow went along on all three excursions to help survey the land, find local volunteers, and actually build the pipeline.
Once accepted to the program he researched similar developments from around the world, and after traveling and becoming very familiar with the project he quickly became a leader for a segment of the construction in the Joyabaj pipeline. Already an asset to the group for his ability to communicate with locals, the hard work that Zastrow consistently put in paid off. Less than a year after applying to EWB he received a promotion. “I simply kept putting in the work, so when the previous managers were leaving the program I was asked to be project manager.”
EWB’s operations in Guatemala are expanding, exciting Zastrow about the benefits that a larger effort will have for the Central-American nation that has suffered more than its share of political turmoil in the past half century. While UW-Madison’s focus has been in the rugged municipality of Joyabaj, several other universities’ EWB chapters are busy with similar projects in other towns.
Despite the weighty new responsibilities that come with being project manager, Zastrow takes the task head-on and loves working with EWB. “Clean potable water should not be a commodity…it’s really great to have the opportunity to travel to another country and give some help to communities while learning about how they solve their own problems.”
However, Zastrow says that beyond the great experience, international friendships, and the pleasure that comes from making a big difference on a global scale, he has already gotten a lot out of his time with the organization. “I joined EWB at a time when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. It has made me realize that I really do want to be an engineer.”
The Guatemala group is currently designing a similar pipeline for a neighboring village, also in the municipality of Joyabaj. This upcoming development will mean more opportunities for Zastrow to make new friends, conquer new obstacles, and continue practicing something about which he is passionate.