Sheena Willison, a senior at Frostburg State University, recently traveled to Uganda as part of a group teaching lifesaving water purification techniques to outlying villagers.
A native of Frostburg, Willison, 22, is also 2009 graduate of Mountain Ridge High School. She is a member of FSU President Jonathan Gibralter’s President’s Leadership Circle.
She was part of a five-person team that went on a 15-day trip to Uganda in late March.
“When I found I was going to Uganda, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been out of the country,” she said.
The 19-hour flight from Dulles International Airport to Istanbul, Turkey, to Rawanda and finally Uganda, was the first flight ever for Willison.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It was an awesome experience.”
The purpose of the trip, which was led by Doug Baer, the director of leadership and experiential learning at Frostburg State, was to instruct the adults and children in the village how to create pure drinking water as well as other sanitation techniques.
“It was really a magical experience,” said Baer, “to see them (the students) transition and grow and change before my eyes.”
“I’ve taken a lot of courses here, but with the PLC (President’s Leadership Circle) and Uganda, that was the best thing I’ve done here,” said Willison.
All students in the trip are in the President’s Leadership Circle.
“It’s a defining moment in their lives,” said Gilbralter. “The PLC lets students have the opportunity to get exposure to leadership opportunities.”
Gibralter said those selected for the PLC get to shadow him and meet with other administrators as well as traveling to Annapolis. They also get to meet business leaders from across the country.
“Everyone who has gone (on the international trips) has said that it’s an experience that has changed their lives,” said Gibralter.
Baer, along with three escorts from Kampala, took the group to several schools and villages in the north and east of Uganda. They worked with villagers and children in the Nebbi and Soroti districts, including the Adusi Elementary School.
In his role at the college, Baer has been on several international trips with students, including the Amazon, Dubai and Prague.
“It’s heartbreaking to think that they (Ugandans) don’t have clean drinking water,” said Willison.
A non-governmental organization known as the Water School helps to facilitate the education of water purification to third world countries who face health issues daily from unsafe drinking water.
Rounding out the five-person team traveling with Willison and Baer, were April Baer, Doug’s wife, and students Lauren Schoelen and Tara Devezin.
“They are the most joyous, happy people you’ve ever met,” Baer said of the people of Uganda.
Baer said that despite the terror imposed by the country’s notorious warlord Joseph Kony, who is now being sought by international security forces, and a civil war that had ended only a few years ago, he was amazed at their spirit.
“We were in war torn areas affected by wars less than five years ago and they are still smiling and happy. Everyone was wonderful to us,” said Baer.
The method the Water School uses to create clean drinking water is low-tech and easy to adopt by the villagers.
Willison and the others supply the villagers with clear pastic 1-liter drinking bottles with a screw top that are filled by water from the local supply and placed in the sun.
The ultraviolet rays from the sun hit the bottles causing any harmful bacteria in the water to be broken-down and destroyed according to Baer.
“They have a sanitation plant but you still can’t drink the water. The pipes that carry the water are corroded and broken and it gets reinfected even after it’s been sanitized,” said Baer.
The bottles must be left in the sun for one day on sunny days and two days on cloudy and rainy days to purify the water.
The group also helped construct fencing around the water purification area and build wood racks that hold more than 100 bottles.
“It’s amazing. It’s a lifesaver, it’s low-tech, sustainable and eco-friendly; it’s is all of these amazing things,” said Baer.
The UV system is more practical than boiling water, which would require constant harvesting of the trees and other wood sources to be used for fuel, according to Baer.
“It’s important for the village people to help us and learn, so when we leave they can do if for themselves,” said Willison.
They also taught ways to construct and use clean handwashing stations, safe rubbish disposal pits and techniques for sanitary waste management.
The members showed them how to make handwashing stations by poking a hole at the top of a five-gallon plastic jug, which is tilted forward to dispense water. Known as the “tippy-tap,” the jug is held up by ropes attached to two poles and is simply tilted forward to allow the water to flow.
"That is more than she makes in a month," said Bear.
“I think we have a lot to learn from them based off their attitude,” said Willison.
“I’m so grateful for having gone. You’re empowering people and the work you do truly changes lives,” said Willison.
A documentary can be found on a previous FSU trip to Uganda at Frostburg.edu/ses-uganda.
To donate to the Water School visit WaterSchool.com/donate. Donations to future FSU projects can be made at Frostburg.edu/foundation/donor.
Greg Larry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org