Volunteers from Fort Lewis College Village Aid Project in Jalapa, Nicaragua

(Volunteers from Fort Lewis College Village Aid Project in Jalapa, Nicaragua, last month, working with a villager on a household water delivery system. George “Hamo” Thorneycroft, standing right, is a Telluride Mountain School graduate who last month completed his bachelor’s degree in environmental science at Fort Lewis College. (Courtesy photo))

Imagine growing up in the small town of Norwood, attending Telluride Mountain School and graduating with a class of eight seniors, heading off to college in Durango at Fort Lewis College, and then deciding to travel to Nicaragua and help design and construct a household water delivery system to bring water from a nearby stream into taps in village homes by working with a nonprofit student group called the Village Aid Project.

That’s what San Miguel County-grown, Fort Lewis College graduate George “Hamo” Thorneycroft did twice — for the first time in 2021, when he went to Ecuador, and again this year, to Nicaragua, after earning his bachelor’s degree in environmental science at Fort Lewis College last month.

Thorneycroft heard about the Village Aid Project (VAP) from friends in Norwood who also worked with the program. Brothers Mesa and Sky Hollinbeck began working with VAP in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and continued to work with the program and travel each year after that until they graduated college.

Student engagement in the annual project isn’t just about getting to travel. It provides real-life opportunities to gain hands-on learning experiences and make an impactful difference in the world.

“The students meet weekly and go through workshops throughout the year to learn skills like laying blocks, mixing concrete and fitting pipes,” Don May said, the founder and director of the project and longtime Fort Lewis College professor of engineering. “They also fundraise during the school year and pay their own way.”

Thorneycroft took part in the program all four years, even though he only traveled with the group twice.

“We’d meet and talk about the projects. We had to take an engineering 101 class, and the senior project for engineering students is to actually design the system that will be built that year,” he said, and added, “I speak a decent amount of Spanish, not great, but I learned a lot while working there.”

Students don’t have to be engineers to attend, according to the project’s website. And, volunteers don’t even have to be students, said May.

“We have one person who has joined us who is a mortgage broker.,” May said. “We have community volunteers and faculty who go along with the students.”

In addition to the teams that travel to the work locations, the villagers themselves put in a considerable amount of work, both before the VAP teams arrive and while they’re there. Each project entails a five-year commitment from VAP, May said.

The first year is for assessment, planning and training as well as establishing a local water committee and collecting monthly funds from each family for the project, an ongoing part of the program’s financial support.

The second year is the construction phase, and the three years after that are for continuing support and follow-up assessment.

“Most villages are usually pretty self-supportive after those five years,” May said, “but if they need something, we’ll continue to help.”

The project team that Thorneycroft was on this year traveled to a village at Jalapa, Nicaragua. Before VAP even arrived, said May, “the villagers put in hundreds of (work) hours to dig 9 kilometers (about 6 miles) of trench by hand. After that, we had 30 to 90 villagers working with us at any given time.”

The delivery system that VAP and the villagers installed brings water from high up on a nearby stream to the village through a pipe to help ensure clean water is reaching the taps in the homes.

Thorneycroft said the project was the largest that VAP has done to date, installing around 130 household water taps and ensuring the system has room to grow with the community for the next 10 to 20 years.

“We have found that water is the first step to a community’s development,” May said.

It impacts everything, he added, and said that when villagers have to haul water, it may mean that kids don’t go to school because they are needed at home to help transport water.

According to a new United Nations World Water Development Report released in early March this year, access to safe and clean drinking water is lacking for around 2 billion people worldwide. By the end of this century, an additional 2 billion people may not have access to water as glaciers lose 80% of their mass in the Himalayan region in Asia, a separate report released on Tuesday estimates.

“We have two goals,” May said. “One is a humanitarian mission. Water is the first step to the overall health of a community. The other is the experience this gives to the students. It shows them that they can be contributors and allows them to understand the world beyond their borders.”

Some of Thorneycroft’s first experiences with this type of travel happened while attending Telluride Mountain School.

“Telluride Mountain School definitely got me into the idea of VAP because it sparked a love for immersive travel experiences,” Thorneycroft said. “Having done similar things in high school also allowed me to take more advantage of similar opportunities and have more confidence traveling in rural areas.”

For more information about VAP, visit fortlewis.edu and type Village Aid Project into the website’s search bar.