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Altamont Senior Expands Clean Water Project in Puerto Rico
Julie Beckwith

As part of his Eagle Scout project, Altamont senior Shawn Goyal created 175 water filtration units that were assembled in Alabama and shipped to people in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela. The idea for providing a solution to the problem of clean water started in Sra. Borst's upper school Spanish class. The class was learning about Puerto Rico and the Caribbean when Hurricane Maria hit. At first, Shawn's idea was to coordinate with Birmingham nonprofits providing aid to the hard-hit countries. Through the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, Shawn was introduced to the company Uzima, which produces inexpensive water filters that last 10 years, require no chemicals and can filter five gallons of water at a time. "After these conversations, a new idea was born. I had the opportunity to provide a long-term solution of affordable, clean water rather than a short-term fix," said Shawn.

Shawn got to work. "I emailed the CEO of Uzima, who responded with a contact person in Puerto Rico, Ricardo Ufret. Through Ricardo, I was able to make even more connections, and the project grew from there."

Shawn successfully completed his Eagle Scout project last fall. But Ricardo continued to stay in touch with Shawn, sending him videos and pictures of people using the water filtration systems—orphanages, remote mountain villages, communities with no infrastructure in place. "I was even able to speak on the phone with people who had received my filtration systems to understand the difference that having access to clean, affordable water made in their lives. It inspired me to do more," he said.

Shawn started a Go Fund me page to buy additional filters. In mid-August, just before school started, he had enough money to purchase an additional 60 filters. He had learned valuable lessons from his Eagle Scout project. "The Jones Act makes shipping goods from the mainland of the United States to Puerto Rico prohibitively expensive, so my mom and I purchased airline tickets from Birmingham to San Juan and carried the filters on the plane with us. We went through the scanners, and, of course, we got pulled aside immediately by airport security. We had to answer a lot of questions. But the filters don't have any metal; they are made of plastic. And they use microfibers, not chemicals. After explaining the project to airport security, and demonstrating that the filters are not dangerous, we were allowed through."

Another important lesson Shawn learned from his Eagle Scout project was the value of a highly functioning assembly line. When Shawn arrived in Puerto Rico, Ricardo had gathered a large group of volunteers, including several Scout troops. Through donations, he had also secured the necessary five-gallon buckets, including buckets with spigots.

Speaking entirely in Spanish, Shawn taught the volunteers how to assemble the water filtration systems. "The assembly process actually went much smoother in Puerto Rico than it did back at home. Within an afternoon, we were able to assemble all 60 units."

"The next day we went into an area south of San Juan known as Vietnam. It was shocking to see such extreme poverty and storm damaged homes. People were living out of their cars. Potable water was for sale, but it was expensive. We literally walked down the street handing out the filtration systems to anyone who needed clean water." Shawn taught each person, in Spanish, how to assemble, use and care for the filtration system.

"We were mobbed by people wanting to have clean water. Seeing that the need is so prevalent just makes me want to do more." He has started that process already. Through connections he made while in San Juan, Shawn was interviewed, in Spanish, on the television show "Primetime" which broadcasts on ABC 5 TV in Puerto Rico. He was able to demonstrate how the filtration system works to a large audience.

While in Puerto Rico, Shawn met and trained another Eagle Scout who will take over the water filtration project in San Juan. "I will continue to support this project as long as I can and in whatever way I can. My goal is to expand the program to more countries."

"My biggest take away from this project is the importance of community. Communities came together because of Hurricane Maria, and these people are the ones who are getting things done."

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