Ted van der Zalm has helped poor farmers in rural Guatemala to a better life, drilling wells to allow them to access water for irrigation for crops and household use. Photo courtesy of Wells of Hope

Opening the gushers to life in Guatemala

  • October 19, 2014

Ted van der Zalm and his wife Miriam gambled their house on a call from God more than 10 years ago and it’s paid off. They hit a gusher, or more accurately, a dozen of them over the last decade.

The van der Zalms are the founders and driving force behind Wells of Hope, a little charity that has blossomed into a small development NGO in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

The couple are to celebrate a somewhat arbitrary 10th anniversary with their supporters Oct. 17 at the Stone Mill Inn in St. Catharines, Ont. The $25 tickets for the event will be added to the $3.5 million Wells of Hope has raised over the years. But the little organization doesn’t exist to raise money. It has used its donations to drill 12 wells, build 15 elementary schools and distribute 15,000 backpacks full of school supplies to Guatemalan students.

Wells of Hope has also taken hundreds of Canadian Catholic high school students to Guatemala and given them a chance to add their sweat and enthusiasm to helping poor, rural communities to a better future.

The real history of Wells of Hope goes back to the mid-1980s, when van der Zalm graduated from university. He was approached by the Precious Blood Fathers and asked to travel with them to Tanzania, where the missionaries were drilling wells to provide poor African farmers with water for irrigation and household use.

“I asked Father, ‘Heck, why are you asking me?’ ” van der Zalm told The Catholic Register. “His answer was simple, ‘Ted, trust in God.’ ”

The result was 10 years spent in East Africa drilling wells for the poor. Van der Zalm met and married Miriam there, and the pair welcomed their first child on African soil.

That event forced a decision. If they were going to have a family, van der Zalm thought it was time to start earning a real living. He and Miriam moved back to Canada and he put his religious studies degree to use as a high school religion teacher for the Niagara Catholic District School Board.

As the family grew, that could have been the end of the van der Zalm’s direct contribution to poor people in poor countries. But then along came the Guatemalan refugees. A group of them were living in the Niagara Region and had learned of the van der Zalms’ past. They asked them whether they could do for their families back home what they had done in Tanzania.

“It was a bit of a difficult decision at the time. We said, ‘My God, we have four young kids. What’s this guy asking of us?’ ” van der Zalm said. “But our experience in Africa told us that what seems impossible to us with God becomes possible.”

So the van der Zalms bought some Spanish language tapes, packed the four kids in the car and drove 10 days to Guatemala, ready to explore the situation in Guatemala’s hilltop villages first hand.

“In every village we went, water was a primary cry,” he said.

What wells van der Zalm found were shallow and hand dug. From his days drilling in Africa, he knew that if they just dug a little deeper the Guatemalans would find more water. But the campesinos refused to go deeper, because of the “evil spirits.” Van der Zalm thought this talk was a distressing example of superstition among illiterate, uneducated folk. So he started digging himself. As he dug, he found more than water.

“So I dug them a well by hand and I lost vision in one eye in the process,” he said.

The evil spirits the Guatemalans told him about were pockets of natural gas found everywhere in the volcanic mountains of the country. Odourless and colourless, the gas could and would easily kill a man with a shovel at the bottom of a well.

“I just said, this is so unnecessary,” van der Zalm said. “People dying digging wells by hand. If we just get a drilling rig we can make all the difference in the world.”

Back home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the van der Zalms mortgaged their house to buy a drilling rig. They established Ted van der Zalm Well Drilling Inc. and van der Zalm would spend his weekends and vacations drilling wells for Niagara Region farmers to pay for the rig.

The next year they drove their simple cable tool rig down to Guatemala in a convoy, with the four kids doing their homework in the car. It was no good going down for summer vacation, that’s the rainy season in Central America. Van der Zalm had to take the January to June semester off without pay.

Once there, the mountains of Guatemala had another lesson for them. That volcanic rock just below the surface was nothing like the clay soil of Niagara farms.

“We encountered such hard, volcanic rock that the drill bit couldn’t even penetrate that rock,” van der Zalm said.

By this time people in the Niagara Region were learning about what the van der Zalms were doing, beginning with other Catholic teachers who saw a religion teacher on fire to serve the poor in a concrete, practical way. Fundraising got a little easier and eventually there was $1.4 million for a bigger and better used drilling rig.

After 2004, things fell into a pattern. Van der Zalm would take an unpaid leave each spring semester. By this time five kids were driving down to Guatemala in the drilling convoy. They lived in tents in Guatemala. The kids did their homework in the mornings and helped with the work in the afternoons.

The Precious Bloods have been watching from afar and like what they see.

“He’s certainly made a tremendous contribution to the poor there in Guatemala,” said Br. Anthony Canterucci, who worked with the van der Zalms in Tanzania. “We’re very happy and proud of their accomplishments.”

The van der Zalms spend a lot of time building relationships with the villagers.

“We don’t go to the community and say, ‘You need water.’ The community comes to us and says, ‘Please, can you help us with water,’ ” he said.

The villages elect their own water committees to oversee the project and maintain the well after the van der Zalms leave. The village sends men to help with digging and other manual labour. The women feed van der Zalm, who runs the drilling rig, usually with the chicken they themselves can only afford to eat once a month.

“Every day for lunch I had meat. I’m humbled to the core,” he said. “It’s the poor who taught me what it is to give. They give from their nothing.”

Wells for Hope projects go beyond just drilling a well. Trenches are dug and pipe laid to the front door of every house in the village.

“We want to break the chains of hauling water that the women are enslaved to all their lives,” van der Zalm said.

Once women are freed from hauling water, they have the time and energy to contribute to the household income in other ways. The year-round source of water also means campesino families eat better. Having water available to irrigate a garden means a year-round supply of vegetables, where before farmers were tied to an unreliable cycle of rain and drought.

“A very small, 20-by-20 foot garden, they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the amount of vegetables such a garden can produce.”

Once involved with a community, Wells of Hope has found it hard to just walk away.

“Without water there’s no life,” said van der Zalm. “But we’ve also branched into building elementary schools, because we also realize aid without education doesn’t work either. Schools are very important. At the same time we can’t ignore the abandoned families, the mothers and children living under a tree because the husband has left or was murdered or whatever. So we build homes for widowed and abandoned women and their children.”

If a community needs a clinic or a dispensary, Wells of Hope will be there for them.

Through these last 10 years Wells of Hope hasn’t had a dime of Canadian government money. They’ve tried, but applying for Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development funding is a game for professionals. Not that they won’t keep trying.

“We believe in planting seeds,” said van der Zalm.

Now that their own kids have headed off for university and can no longer be part of the convoy, the van der Zalms are taking more and more Ontario high school students down south for the drilling season. Last year students from St. Marcellinus in Mississauga, Ont., got the chance. Several groups from van der Zalm’s own Denis Morris Catholic High School in St. Catharines have been part of things.

“God has really allowed us to be His hands and feet and we’ve had so many experiences that literally bring the Gospels alive,” van der Zalm said.

There are opportunities to be part of a Wells of Hope mission even if you’re no longer in high school. Teens with older adults can sign up for the Feb. 4-13 family mission. University students are encouraged to be part of the reading week mission Feb. 13-22. Adults and university students can be part of the 2015 open mission Feb. 22-March 3. For information contact Randy Hendricks at randyh [at] wellsofhope.com

To donate or buy tickets to the 10-year anniversary gala, visit www.wellsofhope.com. 

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Please note: For more info email should be randyh@wellsofhope.com

Randy Hendriks
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