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Engineering a difference in Haiti

Four ONU seniors traveled to Haiti this past summer to strategize ways to bring solar energy to an impoverished village. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but the students are determined to make it happen. “Bonds were formed and hearts were changed on this trip,” said Dale Holzhausen, president of WISH (West Indies Self Help) mission.

After their plane landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the students climbed into the caged bed of a pickup truck for the next leg of their journey. As the truck bumped and bounced over the road, they fell into a shocked silence. Never before had they encountered such scenes of destitution: hungry children standing by the roadway, women bathing in polluted streams, huts made of sticks and broken bottles.

“You see poverty in the media on a daily basis, but until you see it in person, you don’t fully grasp the magnitude,” said John Beaschler, an electrical engineering major.

“It’s much more real and heartbreaking than anything you could have ever imagined,” added Bridget Davis, an electrical engineering major.

The students rode in silence for almost two hours until they reached the small lobster boat that would carry them to their final destination. When they finally arrived in the village of Anse-à-Galets – population: approximately 25,000 – on La Gonave Island, they were more determined than ever to use their education and skills to help the people of Haiti.

The four seniors, Beaschler and Davis, along with Josh Bryan and Stacy McClelland, both civil engineering majors, spent a week in Anse-à-Galets, from July 26 to August 2. Brian Henderson, ONU engineer-in-residence, Frank Illingworth, BSCE ’67, and Dale Holzhausen, president of WISH, accompanied the students. They spent most of their time gathering the pertinent site information needed to design and build a solar energy system.

West Indies Self Help (WISH), a non-denominational organization, hosted the students in Haiti. Illingworth, an ONU alumni and retired civil engineer from St. Louis, Mo., connected ONU to the project. He’s supported WISH’s mission for more than a decade, traveling to Haiti once or twice a year to work on a variety of projects.

WISH was founded by retired Michigan farmers Tony and Pearl Wolfe, who felt called to become missionaries. They moved to La Gonave Island in 1968 and began working alongside the residents to improve their standard of living. One of WISH’s key accomplishments is an extensive water system that provides clean water to the villagers through more than 17 public fountains.

Very few homes on the island have electricity. Currently, WISH uses diesel generators to power electricity for the island’s hospital, dental clinic, police station, shopping area and welding shop for a few hours each day. They spend roughly 50 to 60 percent of their yearly operating budget on the expensive, yet necessary diesel fuel. According to Holzhausen, a solar energy system would make a big difference. “We could reduce our dependency on fossil fuel, decrease our operational expenses and improve our ‘green’ footprint,” he said.

“If they could cut even a fraction of that cost (of diesel), they would be able to do even greater work around Haiti,” said Beaschler.

The students plan to generate 50 to 60 kilowatts initially, with the capacity to generate 150 kilowatts long-term. Their solar system will include solar panels, an inverter to convert D/C into A/C power, and a battery unit to store energy for nighttime usage. “WISH is building a new library in the village, so the battery unit could enable children to read and study in the library at night,” said Brian Henderson, faculty advisor for the senior capstone project.

The entire project presents significant obstacles, added Henderson. The students are dealing with a complicated existing electrical system and many unknown factors surrounding financing and materials. “The problems aren’t clearly defined like they are in textbooks,” said Henderson. “It’s a good learning experience for the students.”

One thing the students have going for them, however, is teamwork. They’ve forged a strong bond around their shared commitment to engineer a difference. In Haiti, they made a pact with one another to do whatever they could to come back in summer 2014 and see the project through to completion. “It was truly a blessed experience for all of us,” said Holzhausen. “These experiences can’t be taught from a book or in a classroom, only felt from the heart.”

The next e-newsletter will provide an update on the Haiti/WISH Solar Energy Project. For now, check out their blog as they document their journey through their senior capstone project.