By A. Ivanhoe

A Western club will be flying south for the summer. The Western chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-WWU) is planning an assessment trip to Guatemala, where they hope to design and build a place where the community can safely do its laundry, called a lavanderia, according to chapter President Forrest Copeland.

Earlier this month, the national Engineers Without Borders organization approved a comprehensive pre-assessment report by the Western chapter to determine the needs of Candalaria Compesanto, a Mayan community of about 38 families in Guatemala that currently does not have any reliable laundry facilities. Four or five students will travel with Paul Randall Grutter, a professional engineer from Skagit County Public Works, to meet with the people who would use a lavanderia and collect data on the village’s community health, water use, water quality, topography and geography.

When the students return from Guatemala, they hope to be armed with the information they need to design whatever will best suit the needs of Candalaria Compesanto, to which they will return and build during a second trip, Copeland said.

“They want it to be sustainable,” club member and junior Miranda Savory said. “Stuff that they can buy locally so, if something breaks, they can fix it.”

According to their pre-assessment report, the village’s women clean their laundry in a local river during the dry months between April and July, when access to water in their homes is limited.

“The project will prevent the local river from being polluted by bleach and laundry detergent when the women of the community wash their clothes,” the report says.
“Women will do laundry in the same source as their drinking water … using bleach,” Copeland said. “That flows downstream, untreated.”

Copeland said that in addition to the human health and environmental hazards this creates, it is also an economic issue. The region where Candalaria Compesanto is situated is near natural limestone caves, which draw in around 5,000 tourists a year, he said. The region has a community-owned ecotourism organization, called Associacion Maya Q’eqchi para el Desarrollo y Turismo de Candelaria Campo Santo (AMDETCA), which conducts its tours along the river.

“The laundry washing [is] … detrimental to the ecotourism,” the pre-assessment report says. “Potential patrons are reluctant to enter the polluted water to tour the natural caves via floating inner tubes.”

“We don’t know the extent of [the hazards] but we’ll find out,” Copeland said.

Last May, Bellingham civil engineer Chris Webb came to an EWB-WWU meeting at Western with news of Candalaria Compesanto’s needs. Webb had been in contact with a United States Peace Corps volunteer working in various Guatemalan communities, Copeland said.

EWB-WWU has been in contact with the community through Chris Barry, a Peace Corps volunteer currently serving in Candalaria Compesanto. Members of the Western chapter also had a conference call directly with the community, where they had the opportunity to get more direct answers to some of their questions, Copeland said. EWB-WWU used the information they collected to create their 17-page pre-assessment report.

Senior and EWB-WWU member Rachel La Bouve said that the lavanderia project is just the first part of a five-year commitment with the community.
“This is just the one problems we know of,” she said.

“We really don’t even know if we’re going to go in this direction,” Copeland noted. “You don’t just go and do something, you work with the community.”

Because many of the people who worked on the project were seniors this year, La Bouve and Savoy both pointed out. EWB-WWU is looking for freshmen, sophomores and juniors to help keep the project going over the next few years. Not all members of the team are engineering majors. La Bouve and Savoy are both Spanish majors, whose language skills will be very important in Guatemala, where it is the only common language between the students and the Mayan people, whose native language is Q’eqchi.

Students who are interested in working with EWB-WWU can contact them at