It takes a village

Ponte Vedra Beach residents, local Rotary Club partner with UNF students to create water distribution system in Guatemalan village


More than 700 people in a Guatemalan village now have access to clean water due in large part to the dream of one Ponte Vedra Beach resident, the support of her local Rotary club and the efforts of five female University of North Florida students.

“There was a spider web of all kinds of things bringing this together,” said Rosemary Takacs, the local resident and Rotarian whose vision launched the project. “That’s why it was so amazing, that we actually all connected, and we actually did it.”

A member of the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach, Takacs was ultimately part of a team that created a new water distribution system in La Esperanza, a rural village in the highlands area of Guatemala. The community previously struggled with water supply and contamination due to a now outdated water system built by the local government in the early 1990s. Residents of the village didn’t have enough water to bathe, and babies were dying because of dehydration.

The problem was real, and the solution devised by Takacs and company was life-changing.

The genesis

The origin of the project traces back seven or eight years ago when Takacs was still working at JEA, where she was a member of the company’s internal audit staff.

A twice returned Peace Corps volunteer who is fluent in Spanish, Takacs was asked by colleagues at JEA to translate and manage the accounting for a few water projects. A site selection team was formed in 2012 to assess various Honduran projects, and Takacs was invited. Over the next three years, she would make five trips to Honduras.

Then, six weeks after retiring from JEA in June 2015, Takacs decided to investigate available Peace Corps opportunities for volunteers who had previously served with the organization. She chose a short-term assignment in Guatemala organizing a goat milk cooperative.

“She developed a passion for that population, a passion for the women who had so little and knew how to survive and take what little they had and put it into care for their family” said Sherry Mahoney, a Ponte Vedra Beach resident and Rotarian who worked with Takacs on the Guatemalan water project. “Her compassion for these people is something we can never take away from her.”

When Takacs returned from her Peace Corps assignment in March 2016, she decided to take a hydraulic engineering class at UNF in fall 2016 to understand the finer details of her recent projects. There, she met Dr. Christopher Brown, an associate professor of civil engineering who teaches the university’s senior design course, a year-long capstone project completed by teams of students.  

“Rosemary asked about what we were doing in our senior design because she was aware I was teaching that,” Brown said. “She asked if we ever did international projects or worked with the Rotary Club. … She said we have some contacts in Honduras and Guatemala and we’re interested in doing a water project.”

In previous experiences, Takacs had met the co-director of Agua Para la Salud, a nonprofit in Guatemala that builds water systems and other projects, and the team from Wisconsin Water for the World, a similar U.S.-based nonprofit organization that was looking for a partner on a water project. La Esperanza was ultimately identified as a community in need of such a project.

“This all just started coming together,” Takacs said.

With interest from UNF, Agua Para la Salud and Wisconsin Water for the World, Takacs worked with Mahoney in spring 2016 to write a grant on behalf of the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach for support of the project. The club, in addition to Beaches Rotaract and Rotary District 6970, ultimately donated $33,000 in total, which ended up accounting for about one-third of the project’s total cost. One of Rotary’s worldwide missions is to provide clean water and sanitation to people in need.

“Without the Rotary contribution,” Brown said, “the project probably would not have been successful.”

Wisconsin Water for the World contributed another third of the cost, and the community of La Esperanza contributed the last third to raise the needed $95,000 to $100,000 for the project.

Completing the project      

The team’s first trip to La Esperanza took place in October 2017, when Takacs, Mahoney and Brown accompanied two of the five female UNF engineering students for a series of site evaluations and meetings with the people of the village.

Takacs returned in February, and the rest of the team, including all students, returned in March to complete the system. Comprising one of the teams in Brown’s senior design course, the students included Taylor Broussard (team leader), Amber Slack, Samantha Kovalenko, Piper Austin and Rosemarie Pinto.

As explained by Pinto, the project was focused on hooking up drinkable water to each of the village’s households. The spring source was located below the village, which presented the challenge of pumping the water up-hill.

“Essentially there’s a well that’s tapped down into the spring,” said Pinto, who now works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “The water from there is pumped up into a spring location and then the water is pumped up to the very top of the community where it is gravity fed into the village through a series of four distribution lines. From those distribution lines, each of them have to go through a pressure relieving tank … the water goes through those and then into the homes.”

Working alongside the people of the village, the language barrier, as well as lack of resources and time, presented the students with additional challenges, but the group persevered, completing the system at the end of March.  

“I was so happy when I heard that pump running,” Takacs said. “People were concerned they were going to have to abandon the village because there was no water. Already, people had started taking jobs in other places.”

Following the completion of the project, Mahoney said she and Takacs both received gifts from people in the village.

“They knew by the looks of us that we were the people who had made that water project happen,” Mahoney said. “They had known what we had done for their families.”

Pinto called the experience the “most life-changing thing” she has ever done.

“It makes you very humble,” Pinto said. “I know a lot of us are planning on doing another project like that in the future.”

Pinto and the other students ultimately received the Senior Capstone Project Award at UNF for their efforts. Takacs received her Rotary Club’s Service Above Self Award, which she accepted at an emotional ceremony in June.

“It was so moving that the whole club shared this dream with me,” Takacs said. “For years, I’d been talking about stuff like this. They knew this was my dream. Now it was all their dreams.

“I think a lot of people would come back with me,” she added. “They’ve heard the stories from Sherry, the engineers and all these other people. … they now relate to this little village on the side of a mountain in Guatemala, and they would go.”