Students dig deep for Wells of Hope

By  Dylan Robertson, Youth Speak News
  • August 7, 2008

{mosimage}Ted van der Zalm of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., is someone who knows very well the definition of giving. In 2004, he started Wells of Hope, a not-for-profit charity dedicated to helping people in Guatemala by drilling wells for fresh water and providing the necessities of survival.

“God doesn’t look at how much we’ve given, but how much we have left back,” van der Zalm said. “It’s a call not to give until it’s convenient, but until it hurts.”

In the 1990s, van der Zalm drilled wells to help the rural poor of Africa. Years later, during a visit to South America with his family of six, he was once again struck by peoples' great need for water and food abroad.

So, in 2004, the van der Zalm's mortgaged their home, organized multiple fund-raisers and attracted media attention as they left for Guatemala with a convoy of vehicles, volunteers and well-drilling equipment.

This was the start of Wells of Hope, which now helps more than 30,000 people with its donation drives, educational opportunities, orphanages, health care and water irrigation for crops.

The grassroots organization, which heavily incorporates youth, is based on family volunteers and fund-raisers in Catholic schools. Volunteers pay their own way to stay in the field from 10 days to three months.

A new program had elementary school children filling thousands of used backpacks with school supplies for Guatemalan youth. The distribution was filmed for the children to see afterwards.

Van der Zalm describes a call to serve the poor as the ultimate Gospel challenge.

“After seeing their misery and suffering firsthand, I couldn’t just turn my back on the poor. When I stepped out of my comfort zone and answered God’s call, the Gospels literally came alive,” van der Zalm said.

“They continue to come alive through working with the poor; the Gospels are more than just words.”

Wells of Hope welcomes young volunteers to Guatemala to help in different ways. Many teens spent their spring break this year reaching out to other youth.

Sukil Lee, 19, a South Korean-born former student at Denis Morris High School in St. Catharines, Ont., visited the Jalapa region in Guatemala in March, teaching English to children in schools and orphanages.

“It was an eye-opening experience to see how the others lived,” Lee said. “Writing a 10-page paper on world hunger and poverty in Grade 12 was one thing — actually witnessing the grim reality of Jalapa was quite another.”

Lee said it helped her to realize that poverty is more than just statistics.

“I wanted to wake up from my apathetic dormancy and stand up to the injustice,” Lee said. “In the end, that’s what Mr. Van der Zalm taught us to do . . . and I certainly believe that my purpose was fully realized.”

Nicholas Landry, 19, of St. Charles, Ont., has visited Guatemala twice and said the experience helped him feel worthwhile.

“As a young person, you sometimes feel that you can’t do much, because you don’t have the experience,” Landry said. “But once you see the school painted, or the house walls being built, you know that you had a hand in there. Every job is important. The biggest reward earned is the satisfaction that I’m serving God.”

He said that Wells of Hope has helped him in the discernment of his vocation to do missionary work by revealing that God will clear all obstacles for those who persist.

Erica Baker, 16, from Thorold, Ont., participated in a spring break trip earlier this year.

“I have made amazing friendships with people on the trip who were total strangers. Now I always compare things to the way it is in Guatemala. Not just the poverty, but the lifestyle — what things are like for others,” she said. “As a student it’s hard to get that opportunity.”

Wells of Hope has been working with the Niagara Catholic District School Board to establish a co-op program where students earn credits outside the classroom by spending a semester in Guatemala serving the poor. Van der Zalm has also been fund-raising to replace aged drilling equipment.

Local Knights of Columbus councils have been lobbying the Knights Supreme Council to financially support van der Zalm, a fellow Knight, in his endeavour to drive a much-needed new drilling rig from Canada to Guatemala.

For more information on this non-denominational organization, visit

(Robertson, 17, is a graduate of All Saints Catholic Secondary School in Whitby, Ont.)

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