The first time Miriam and Ted van der Zalm travelled to Guatemala to deliver clean water to families living in remote mountainous regions, they had their deep faith, their devotion to helping others and their first baby to accompany them.
Fast forward almost 20 years and much has changed. They have raised their family of five children who spent part of each year with them in Guatemala. Four have graduated from university, the fifth is pursuing a PhD — Ted jokes he will be a perpetual student.
And while Ted and Miriam still spend January to May in the mountains of the Jalapa area of Guatemala, and Ted is still focused on drilling wells and delivering clean water to those remote villages, they have built up an organization that does so much more.
But, as Ted stresses — often — they don’t do it themselves. Along their journey they have built up a large community of volunteers who make their work possible, from fundraising here on the ground to those who use their time, money and expertise on a wide range of initiatives to help the Guatemalan people.
The couple have gone from hitting the road in a pick-up truck each January, taking their kids and what they needed in the way of equipment with them, and living in tents when they arrived, to setting up a permanent camp called Esperanza, or hope. It’s a 13-hectare property for themselves, the volunteers who come to help them, and Guatemalan managers who are there year-round.
After learning early on they needed larger, expensive drilling rigs to get through 1,000 feet of hard volcanic rock, and supporters at home fundraised to make that possible, their equipment now remains at the camp, waiting for them when they arrive in January.
When they are at home in Niagara, Ted can be seen driving around in his Wells of Hope truck, drilling wells to provide the income he needs for the rest of the year. “I’m very blessed to have two of my sons working with me,” he says. He and Miriam also operate their Concession 2 home as a bed and breakfast.
And here at home, Scott Maxwell uses his talents to take charge of fundraising efforts to keep the work going in Guatemala — he has supported Wells of Hope since its earliest days, and learned this is where his expertise is most useful, he says.
To that end, Passion, an annual event pre-pandemic, is returning after a three-year hiatus.
In its early days, it was held at Mori Gardens, and the last time before COVID, at Chateau des Charmes Winery, where it will be again this Friday, Sept. 22 from 6:30 to 10 p.m.
It’s one of three major fundraisers for the organization, says Maxwell, and has helped more than 93,000 people in Guatemala by providing them with potable water — water that women and young children would otherwise spend hours of their day making multiple trips down hills to a water source, then back up again, collecting firewood along the way, buckets heavy with water on their heads.
Wells of Hope, says Maxwell, has also built and provided clean water to two health clinics.
More than 5,600 children have benefited from the 30 schools that Wells of Hope has built, and a new trades centre has been added to facilitate the training and certification of young people in welding and other trades.
Young adults are learning to manufacture desks and other items, and, adds van der Zalm, although there was a time when Niagara would send containers of items such as used blankets and clothing, now they focus on teaching Guatemalans to create sustainable businesses and agriculture so they can support themselves.
Bridges are being built — metaphorically and physically — by volunteers and by Guatemalans who are learning construction skills.
Education is paramount to van der Zalm, who says he lives by the proverb that “if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Or, as Maxwell says, “it’s never been about handouts, it’s about a hand up.”
Van der Zalm explains the wide range of skilled volunteers who go to Guatemala to share their area of expertise, from construction, to hydrologists, to dentists and hygienists, each paying for their own transportation and food costs — the only part of their trip they don’t pay for is their accommodations.
Especially important to van der Zalm are the high school students, from Denis Morris and Holy Cross and other schools across Niagara and beyond, offering young people the opportunity, as he says, to learn “that we are blessed to live where we do, but not everybody lives as we do.”
It’s a lesson the teens and volunteers carry with them, many returning, maybe not the next year but a couple of years down the road, when they realize how life-changing it was for them to be able to help others, he says.
“What we’re providing for them is an opportunity, a beautiful gift,” says van der Zalm, to learn that they can make a difference in someone’s life.
He speaks with gratitude of popular restaurant chains, Canyon Creek and Jack Astors, whose owner has embraced Wells of Hope with a Water for Wells project, funding trips for their own team members to visit Guatemala, helping to building wells, homes for families and classrooms.
The restaurants charge for water, and any money collected goes to fund Wells of Hope, “so others can also have clean drinking water,” van der Zalm says, adding that staff share the reason for the charge and the work Wells of Hope does to their patrons.
Their goal is two-fold, he says — they not only raise money to support the organization, but they have a large audience with whom to share its message.
As do businesses here in Niagara, with support “from many individuals, as well as from the restaurant and hospitality industries,” says Maxwell. “At Passion, we fantastic support from the Prince of Wales, Queens Landing and the Pillar and Post.”
Food tastings courtesy of Vintage will be paired with award-winning wines from Chateau des Charmes and beer from local breweries, including Oast, Exchange and Counterpart.
Ron Dewberry will entertain with his music and humour, and a silent auction will benefit Wells of Hope.
As popular as the Passion event has always been, says Maxwell, it’s more difficult getting people out post-COVID, but he’s hoping supporters are ready for an evening of great food and entertainment.
Tickets are $100 per person. For more information or to purchase tickets visit the website.