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Spokane-based ministry provides clean water to Guatemela villages


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A girl in Guatemala drinks from a well provided from Water for Life.
A girl in Guatemala drinks from a well provided from Water for Life.

When Gary Bartholomew and his wife, Angie, traveled to Guatemala in 1985, they never thought that along with their adopted daughter Summer, they would also find their life calling.

The Bartholomew’s met Summer at Los Pinos, an orphanage founded by International Children’s Care, a Vancouver, Wash. based organization. It was at Los Pinos, that the Bartholomew’s saw an immense need for all kinds of aid in the area. 

In 1997, Gary and Angie decided to return to Guatemala for a few weeks to serve rural communities in any way they could. 

They continued this trend until 2005 when with their biological son, Rod, they co-founded the Spokane based nonprofit Water for Life.

Water for Life provides sustainable clean water, medical and dental care, and the news of the Gospel for rural villages in Guatemala.

The mission for clean water began when Gary noticed that the villagers around Los Pinos were drinking from hand-dug holes in the ground that were filled with muddy, stagnant water and debris, including dead vermin.

Most villages rely on streams and rivers for their water, but the communities downstream get the dirty runoff water of previous villages. 

“The rivers cause all kinds of parasite-related illness, lots of children die due to dehydration,” Gary said. 

According to the United Nations National Development Programme, a child dies every 20 seconds from drinking contaminated water.       

“There is a critical and immense need for clean water,” Gary said.  

Clean water is one of life’s most basic necessities and yet 780 million people —that’s more than 2.5 times the population of the United States — lack access to it. 

After deciding that they wanted to find a way to provide clean water for Los Pinos, Gary contacted well drillers in Guatemala in late 2004.

The first project failed.  The well didn’t yield much water, and after tests, the water turned out to be contaminated. 

This didn’t stop Gary.

“It was out of the ashes of that first project that we decided to do our own drilling,” he said. 

Raised in the drilling industry in Spokane, Wash., Gary used his experience to do the drilling himself.

“I thought, ‘maybe we should just go for it,’ and I put an ad in the well driller’s newsletter,” Gary said.  “We got a call from Oregon and got our first drill donated (in 2005).  Other people started to donate as well.”

Having equipment was a huge blessing for the work that Gary envisioned. To build a well in Guatemala costs around $35,000 but Water for Life is able to do the same work for around half of that cost.

A little over two years ago, Water for Life established a headquarters in Guatemala. Bernie Leonardo is the head coordinator, and only full time employee, for the Guatemalan headquarters. 

“Bernie is the Lord’s hand in Guatemala,” said Tim Rasmussen, president and chairman of the Board for Water for Life. “Without him we could not function.”

Well created by Water for Life
Well created by Water for Life

Leonardo makes sure everything is running smoothly and acts as an on-site mechanic who is able to travel to the different well locations in case any problems arise with the wells. 

“We want it to be sustainable. Water for Life is adamant about that,” Gary said.

Along with providing maintenance, Water for Life looks to build relationships with the villagers and to get them involved so that they have a sense of ownership over the project.

“We come to a lot of needs, and we do as much as we can,” Gary said.  “Clean water is basic and a good foundation to build from.”

Rasmussen traveled to Guatemala in early 2005 with his wife Annette to help with the first well drilling project. Rasmussen worked with the technical aspects of the well while Annette helped in the orphanage building relationships with the children and staff.

“You want to help and you see tremendous need, so you just do all you can,” said Rasmussen.

To expand its aid, Water for Life teams up with dental and medical volunteers to provide free, and much needed, medical care for villagers.

“Every year we do medical and dental work in villages where we have wells,” Gary said.

Water for Life has also received free medical supplies and equipment form Deaconess Hospital in Spokane. These donated gifts are then passed on to the Ministry of Health in Guatemala.

“It changes people’s lives to have basic medical care,” Rasmussen said.  

Gary described a particular instance where he saw the transformative power of the work of the medical teams.

“One little gal, about 6-years-old, had a huge growth on her face between her eyes.  It was about the size of a small orange. The dental team found her and researched options for her. They found a doctor in Maine who was willing to do the operation pro-bono. A year or so later I saw that little girl again and she was living a happy, normal life.”

Water for Life has a mission to not only provide clean water and other medical benefits, but to provide “spiritual water” as well.  Along with their goal to produce six to eight wells per year — this year they finished 11 — Water for Life works to build churches as well.

Partnering with Upper Columbia Conference, the administrative office for 132 Seventh-day Adventist churches and worship groups in eastern Washington, north Idaho, and northeastern Oregon, together they have built eight churches. Water for Life has built an additional three churches and plans to build a fourth within the next year.

“It’s not just clean water that’s needed, there is a lot of oppression; they’re happy to hear the good news of the gospel. It gives them hope for a better place,” Gary said.

Gary and Rasmussen like to hand out Spanish Bibles and Adventist literature after the pump is producing clean water for the first time. Last year they were able to distribute around 2,000 Bibles and 1.3 million pieces of Adventist literature.

“People are hungry for the gospel in Guatemala,” Rasmussen said. “We try to give them clean water and at the same time let them know about the love of God.”

Water for Life wants those they help to know that it is God who makes the work, and the clean water, possible. 

“We show the goodness of the gospel through our work and benevolence,” Gary said.  “It’s the Lord that provides the water and the blessings that it brings.”

With over 40 wells to date, Water for Life is quickly growing.  Run completely by volunteers, Water for Life is open to any way that people want to help. 

“Our volunteers come from all walks of life and religious backgrounds, but they have one thing in common; a heart to help people,” Rasmussen said.

Gary has seen people use their family vacation time to go to Guatemala to volunteer.

“There’s a family (from Texas) down there now taking their vacation,” said Gary. “They’re teaching English and educating about safe water practices.”

Gary goes back to Guatemala every year from January through March to build wells and spread the gospel.

In a season there are about 40 volunteers who cycle through. The orphanage provides free housing and food for about $6 a day.

“Just get involved helping something. If you choose Water for Life, you can pray, donate funds or equipment, or volunteer,” Gary said.  “It’s a very rewarding experience that makes a big difference for people.”

To learn more about Water for Life and ways to get involved, visit its website.

Charlene O'Connor
Charlene O'Connorhttps://www.facebook.com/charlene.oconnor2
Charlene O'Connor is a senior at Whitworth University. She is getting her bachelor's degree in communications with minors in sociology and theology.

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