NEW ULM - A family with a local connection - Luke and Stephanie Pekrul, and their son Augustin, age six months - are relocating to Nicaragua early next month, to help improve local people's access to safe, clean water.
Luke is the son of New Ulm residents William and Peggy Pekrul.
Growing up, Luke had long imagined being involved, in some capacity, with solving the challenges of the Third World.
Photos courtesy of Bill Pekrul/Nuevas Esperanzas
Above: Luke and Stephanie Pekrul (with son Augustin) leave the New Ulm home of Luke’s parents next month, to help improve water supply to poor farming communities in Nicaragua.
"I just didn't know exactly what I'd do," he says. "I thought perhaps I'd be a doctor with Doctors Without Borders or something..."
He ended up earning bachelor's degree at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., with a double major in International Development and Spanish. He would later graduate from Clark with a master's degree in International Development.
Luke worked in Worcester as a program director at Centro Las Americas, a community-based multi-service Latino organization. He volunteered in humanitarian efforts in Africa and Nicaragua; and taught English classes to Haitians in the Dominican Republic.
As a result of four months of volunteering in Nicaragua, Luke had learned about the work of a non-profit organization started in that country by a British couple.
Originally funded by international foundations and individuals under the umbrella of global charity Mercy Ships, the non-profit organization, now called Nuevas Esperanzas UK, seeks to increase the capacity of communities to meet their water needs, reduce water-related diseases and improve the management of natural resources.
With a similar vision, the Pekruls are now starting an independent arm, Nuevas Esperanzas US.
The organization will work with small communities located on the slopes of western Nicaragua's volcanic ranges.
The soil in that area is good, so people choose to live and farm there, despite the lack of easy access to water, says Luke.
The water supply is poor - it is a four to five-hour trip to a clean water spring. "You can't dig a well on the side of volcano," Luke explains.
The Pekruls want to help these communities collect rainwater. The area has a dry and rainy season - it rains during half of the year - and the rainfall is sufficient to justify the idea.
The non-profit will provide the materials and instructions to build water cisterns. The cisterns can be built to almost any scale, says Luke - for households, schools or health clinics. A 7,000-gallon cistern costs $1,500 and can be maintained for 20 years. It requires a couple of a cleanings a year, and Nuevas Esperanzas teaches the cistern recipients how to do those cleanings. The cisterns can fully meet people's washing and drinking needs.
Improving access to clean water has the potential to profoundly change the people's lives.
"If people do not have to spend four hours each day just getting water, they can spend more time working, or in school," says Luke.
"Worse, the lack of access to safe water is the second largest cause of infant deaths - because of water-born diseases."5
"If we can change that - we can reduce infant mortality rates in communities like that, by up to 50 percent... These are fundamental human impacts."
The recipients of the cisterns themselves put in most of the labor constructing the tanks. "Seeing the beneficiaries take ownership of these cisterns through their own effort and sacrifices is a very satisfying aspect of the work," says Luke.
The first, model project completed by the British group in 2005 directly affected about 2,400 people, including some 800 school children, in the community of San Jacinto. The group built 14 cisterns: one for the school, one for the clinic and 12 for individual households.
In addition to building water cisterns, the organization will do some road construction - otherwise materials have to be hauled on horseback, notes Luke.
Other aspects of the organization's work concern environmental conservation - efforts to stop deforestation and promote reforestation. This can be done in some simple ways - by helping people install more efficient wood burning stoves and manage run-off, for example.
Luke will be acting as project manager, doing things such as purchasing and distributing materials, supervising employees on the ground, and writing grants and contracts. The family will be based in the Central American nation's second largest city, Leon, and he will travel to project sites.
Stephanie will be involved in fund raising and some bookkeeping for the program.
Before making a commitment, the Pekruls traveled to the country to ensure that relocating there would be a good fit for the entire family, and not just for Luke - "it was us interviewing them," puts in Stephanie.
She had not been to Nicaragua, but had spent time in nearby Costa Rica as part of her own college experiences - she is an elementary teacher. She was easily sold on the Nicaragua project.
The family has made an indefinite time commitment, and they leave Luke's parents' New Ulm home at the beginning of September.
While the non-profit organization welcomes financial support, it is not the Pekruls' primarily reason for sharing their story.
Motivated by Christian faith, the couple hopes to help educate people about the predicament of others.
"It is my hope that learning about the condition of these folks would help people here empathize with those removed from them, living in very different circumstances," says Luke.
It's important for people, anywhere, to know that somebody cares about them, he adds.
Nuevas Esperanzas can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you wish to send a letter or a donation, please write to: Nuevas Esperanzas US, P.O. Box 626, New Ulm, MN 56073.