Improving Lives as a Way of Life

I found myself in the back of a Land Rover with two civil engineers in the middle of rural Ethiopia. To say life sometimes really hits unexpectedly is an understatement. But it’s the most apt description of the lives of Mike and Gerard.

At age 31, Mike Paddock was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It had spread to his bone marrow and he was given three to six months to live. “It was harder on my family than [on] me,” he told me two decades later.

Finding himself quite unexpectedly in full remission, he and his wife, Cathy, plotted the securing of their future so that they could let Mike loose on the world. And that is how Mike Paddock, a civil engineer who ran multibillion-dollar freeway and expressway projects in Wisconsin, became a full-time volunteer engineer four years ago, traveling to some of the most impoverished and devastated places on earth to help rebuild after natural disasters, conflicts, and famines.

“I do this because there may be no tomorrow,” he told me as we bumped along on the 12-hour drive, adding, “and you gotta marry a saint.” When he’s back home in Milwaukee, Mike’s 8-acre backyard is filled with experimental water projects, geothermal and solar energy systems, rainwater catchments, filters, and composting devices. He’s threatened to get a herd of goats, but Cathy put her foot down, knowing she’d be tending to them while Mike was away on his many trips with Engineers Without Borders USA, Bridges to Prosperity, miscellaneous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and as a consultant to the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development. And while organizations sometimes pick up his travel, he won’t take a penny in pay.

He recently logged his 20,000th hour of volunteer engineering service, which began 20 years ago when he read about an international student program in his Michigan Tech alumni magazine. He offered to help and within six weeks found himself in Bolivia, helping student engineers build new schools with water/sanitation/hygiene (WASH), facilities that dramatically improve student health and help keep them in school. They also bring wastewater treatment to the broader community. This water work is life-saving work. Health, education, poverty-reduction, and productivity are impossible without access to safe water and sanitation.

Back from Bolivia, Mike learned that Marquette University students were designing and building bridges in Guatemala. He was off again and has been volunteering with Bridges to Prosperity for 12 years now, making Guatemala practically his second home and incorporating WASH into his work there.

Even before becoming a full-time volunteer, he was spending 12 weeks a year (vacation plus unpaid leave) on overseas volunteer assignments.

But back to that Land Rover.… I was traveling with Mike and fellow engineer Gerard Dalziel earlier this year as a volunteer with Village Health Partnership, VHP, whose mission is to improve maternal and child health systems in Ethiopia.

But Ethiopia is hardly alone. Around the world, the lack of WASH in health clinics and hospitals is appalling. A 2018 study of 78 low- and middle- income countries found 50 percent of healthcare facilities lacked piped water, 33 percent lacked basic toilets, and 39 percent lacked soap.

I had come to Ethiopia to learn more about the impact on those most vulnerable – newborns and pregnant women. (Meet one beautiful young mom living a preventable tragedy; I’ll never forget her.) Mike and Gerard, both traveling with Engineers Without Borders USA, were there to evaluate and advise on a number of potential WASH projects in a healthcare facility.

I saw firsthand Mike’s kid-in-a-candy-store thrill at bringing water to people. When he dons his black work gloves and fishing cap, he’s at his happiest, though he’ll often say “Wasted water makes me crabby.”

But I never saw Mike crabby.

Maybe that’s because I saw him chalk up his 53rd, 54th, and 55th well repair during various trips to Ethiopia. Sustainability is a massive issue. There are, in fact, uncountable broken, nonfunctioning wells, water pumps, and sinks across the developing world because, too often, well-meaning charity projects lack plans to train and fund ongoing maintenance. So a water project becomes a nice photo op with thankful villagers and a story to tell back home, but 50 percent of these one-off projects fail. Larger-development NGOs and government projects face similar challenges with disrepair. Mike told me that many of the pumps he’d fixed are sitting on veritable swimming pools of water but when water no longer comes out, communities assume the well has gone dry. Sustainability means having committed local leaders, trained people, and funds to keep systems running after they’re installed.

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Susan Barnett

Susan Barnett is the founder of the nonprofit Faiths for Safe Water, an advocacy project that focuses the faith voice on global water issues.

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