Aqua employees and Villanova University students return to Panama for service trip

 

During the first week of March, Villanova University engineering students and professors traveled with Aqua North Carolina President Shannon Becker, Aqua Pennsylvania Vice President, Distribution Mike Fili and Electrical Maintenance Manager Joe Gallagher to Wacuco, Panama to work with Panama-based partner Father Wally to improve water delivery and quality in the community. The trip marked Aqua and Villanova’s fourth service visit to the country since 2016. This year the Aqua and Villanova team worked together on multiple projects including water quality testing, rehabbing water tanks and upgrading a steel bridge in the community.

To provide employees with an inside look at their experience in Panama, Becker, Fili and Gallagher shared their thoughts on this year’s trip.

Tell us about what you and the team were doing in Panama.

    • Becker: Since this was my first trip, I didn’t really know what to expect. I wanted to help in any way that I could, including spending this time getting to know the Villanova engineering students. One of the projects I worked on was to add a layer of concrete to the surface of a bridge that Father Wally previously installed using a railroad car. The Villanova students did whatever was needed, and the local residents even came down to help shovel gravel. The students not only got to use their brains on this project, but also discovered muscles they didn’t know they had as they worked side-by-side with the local residents who were so appreciative. The sense of community and desire to help was amazing!
    • Fili: We worked on a few projects. One of our major projects was repairing water tanks. Not only were we going in to repair them, but we also wanted to teach the local operators who work with Father Wally how to perform these repairs in the future, so they could continue to maintain them on their own. The Villanova students were so eager to help and finished the first tank project much quicker than expected – they completed the repairs in one day! Overall, we were down in Panama to provide labor and knowledge.
    • Gallagher: There were members of Villanova Engineering Service Learning {VESL} and a senior design team that came along this year. I specifically worked with this team, which had the task of trying to modify existing PVC straight pipe that, once heated, would mimic a cast iron coupling. The students created a prototype that we were able to put to test and refine in the field.  As a result, they are making some modifications based on their learnings and expect to deliver the prototype to Father Wally for use this coming summer.  It was great working with these bright students and bouncing ideas off each other.

What was the main goal of this trip? 

    • Becker: The primary objective was to help Father Wally and the community accomplish the repairs to the water tank and provide on-going knowledge. For me, I was looking forward to getting my hands dirty and just being part of this overall effort while connecting with the engineering students. I wanted to share knowledge with them, be a good role model, and provide career advice wherever possible. This experience helps provide the students insight into the real world, outside of a textbook. I wish I would have had an opportunity like this VESL project while in school.
    • Fili: For me, the main goal of the trip was meeting and working with the students and having a positive relationship with them. It was an incredible group of young people; they were extremely motivated, talented and intelligent. It was also great being able to work with the Villanova leadership and my fellow colleagues.
    • Gallagher: For the Senior Design project, the main goal was to get the device to work and prove that it is functioning, which we were able to accomplish. Before we left Panama, we also sat down with Father Wally to go over other items he may need help with in the future.

What was the biggest challenge or obstacle during the trip?

    • Becker: Personally, I think the biggest challenge was the language barrier. Unfortunately, I did not take Spanish in school and had to rely on a translator to communicate.  It would have been nice to be able to speak to the local residents and workers to better understand who they are and how they live. 
    • Fili: For me, the challenge was language. I thought it was great that there were people in the group who were fluent in Spanish and were able to help translate. When we would go into the stores for materials, it was hard to communicate with the employees to try and get what we needed because of the language barrier.
    • Gallagher: The one challenge was the language difference. The crew that Father Wally has working with them is very helpful, but I was only able to interact with them a little bit. So, I would say the interactions with the locals was a little bit of a challenge.

What has surprised you most about Panama?

    • Becker: I was surprised to see what Father Wally has been able to do with so little. It was astounding to see what they fixed and repurposed by turning a useless item into a useful tool.  It was eye opening to see the conveniences we take for granted and the different lifestyles. Haircuts were $3 and you could buy fresh meat on the side of the road – goats and chickens just waiting to be purchased on the way home for dinner!
    • Fili: I think the language barrier stood out to me the most. I wish I was able to communicate better with the locals because they were fantastic and very nice. Everyone was very welcoming with the projects and were there to help us with whatever we needed.
    • Gallagher: Even though I have been on previous trips to Panama, it still surprised me how much Father Wally has accomplished. The water systems he has established are incredible to see firsthand. You can’t fully appreciate it until you see it in person.

What does the partnership with Villanova mean to you? 

    • Becker: I was aware of the partnership we were developing with Villanova, but being in North Carolina, I hadn’t been as close to it as some of my colleagues in Pennsylvania. I think it’s a great opportunity to partner with a prestigious university that also has a practical application as part of their program where they can reach out to the community and get real-life experience. Our connection with Villanova has enabled us to use them as a resource, whether it’s hiring students down the road or working with them in the community, I’m thankful for the opportunity to contribute and proud to say that I’m a part of this program. It’s a fantastic opportunity to develop a great relationship with the school and its students.
    • Fili: To me, relationships are everything. I really enjoyed working with the students and faculty of Villanova and building relationships with them. You never know when you’ll cross paths again, whether it be for a future job, a recommendation, whatever it might be. It was great meeting new people and building connections.
    • Gallagher: It’s a great opportunity and it lives up to Aqua’s mission of protecting Earth’s most essential resource. For Aqua to enable their employees to go on a trip like this is great and shows their commitment to the community and helping others. When you go to communities like those we visited in Panama, it makes you appreciate this resource and understand that not everyone has easy access to water like we do. I was really impressed with how the students worked together and the time they put into this trip. It made me feel young again to be around college students.

Did you try any new or unique foods while in Panama? 

    • Becker: I tried sugar cane juice that was made by one of the local residents helping on one of the jobs.  It was homemade and served straight from a bucket, which is the only way to have it!  We also had rice and hot dogs for breakfast several days, which I’ve never had in combination before, or at that time of day (and without ketchup).
    • Fili: We had a lot of beans and rice and I tried hot tuna, which I never had before. I also tried a complete fried fish, the whole head and everything!
    • Gallagher: We had all local food and I enjoyed it. We tried chicken stew, feet included! We also had a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits.

Most interesting thing that happened while on the trip? 

    • Becker: Aside from showering with a tree frog and waking up to howler monkeys dropping nuts on our tin roof, the limited access to paved roads and their condition jumped out to me. Riding in the back of Father Wally’s truck through the mountains was an invigorating experience. Overall, I created so many great memories working with Mike and Joe, who I got to know well and developed a strong bond.  This entire trip was interesting and memorable.
    • Fili: When I got up the first morning, the magnitude of the equipment they had and the size of the operation Father Wally built over the years really surprised me. You have one man who basically started a water system from scratch with very little resources – the vision, perseverance and dedication to get things done is amazing. Father Wally does it all.
    • Gallagher: When we realized we completed all our assigned tasks, we celebrated and discussed our highs and lows of a trip. It was great to sit around with everyone and discuss the highlights of our time in Panama.  

Anything else you would like to add about your experience? 

    • Becker: Looking back, I wish I would have had this type of experience while in college - I just didn’t know what I was missing.  To be able to apply what you are learning to a practical experience, and in a way that helps others is so rewarding and valuable - it sends you down a different path and one I will be sure my kids travel.
    • Fili: I had a great time on this trip. It was a great opportunity for me to be able to work closely with Shannon and Joe, who are tireless workers. We were always looking for the next thing to do. It was a great experience all around and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
    • Gallagher: I really enjoyed being able to work with Shannon and Mike. It was a pleasure working with Father Wally and it was really satisfying to be able to help with whatever projects he needed done. He always says to us that he lives simply so others can simply live. He talks the talk and puts his heart and soul into his work. It was great being a part of the experience and making memories with other members of the team. It makes you enjoy the little things in life.

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