The Onsite Community Travels to Help the Needy in Belize

Volunteers from an Ohio church travel to Central America to install a system at a shelter for girls

The Onsite Community Travels to Help the Needy in Belize

 Many of the people who helped install the wastewater system in Belize had no construction skills, so doing the job right depended on the knowledge of a core group of people who could cut pipe and knew how components needed to fit. Scot Davidson cuts a piece of Schedule 40 PVC as other volunteers look on.

Church mission trips usually don’t send a crew of mostly inexperienced people from a small Midwestern town to install a wastewater system in Central America. Yet that’s what Ty Keefer found himself overseeing in February for his group from First Presbyterian Church in Norwalk, Ohio. Fortunately, he does have experience, but only of a certain kind.

Keefer owns Stark’s Sanitary Service in Norwalk. He pumps tanks and does minor repairs. “I’ve done no installation. I’ve been around when systems were put in,” he says.

At the end of the trip was Marla’s House of Hope, a shelter for girls from abusive families and located in Belmopan, capital city of Belize. The shelter has a capacity of 20 to 25 girls and had two septic tanks on a square lot measuring 142 feet on a side.

“They have no regulations down there, so both of the septic systems were dumping into ditches,” Keefer says.

It was an unhealthy situation, and the people in Belmopan knew it when they asked for help.

Making connections

Belize was the destination because the Rev. James Hodsden of First Presbyterian had been there many times, says Greg Graves, a member of the church who is also general manager of Norweco, which is based in Norwalk.

It had been several years since a mission trip from the church had gone beyond the borders of the U.S., Graves says. In August 2019, seven church members including Graves went to Belize with Hodsden to see what projects needed doing. Their hosts in Belize, from The Word At Work, suggested several projects, and one of their more important ministries was at House of Hope. When Graves was introduced, the conversation changed.

“I am not an engineer at all, but when they heard the word wastewater or sewage, their eyes were lighting up, and they said, we have all kinds of work for you,” he says.

Once the wastewater system for the shelter was on the project list, the next question was how to do it. Infiltrator Water Technologies volunteered to do the design work and donate Quick4 chambers for the project, Graves says. And Infiltrator solved the problem of shipping equipment to Central America, he says. Contracting for a shipping container would have cost thousands, but someone at Infiltrator knew there was space in a container that a different church group was sending to Belize for its own project. Infiltrator sent its equipment to Gulfport, Mississippi, and volunteers saw that it was loaded into the container bound for Belize.

Finding skills

In the meantime, Keefer was working out how to install the system. The wastewater work was scheduled for February, but Keefer was able to go on a church trip in November so he could visit the site. Then he looked at the roster of people for the February trip, and the projects they would be doing, and cherry-picked for the skills he needed.

“I said, I need people who have knowledge about some of this stuff. It’s nothing against having unskilled labor, but this is a skilled-labor project. You just can’t have every Tom, Dick and Harry throwing Infiltrator chambers down,” Keefer says. “We had two guys on the trip who knew how to shoot grades, and one of those guys had helped install a system before.”

Other people he found had installed drain tiles and knew how pipes should be connected and laid.

“Being that I’ve been involved in the septic industry for the last 25 years, I had knowledge of how systems work. Combining us made it far easier to do something that none of us had done on our own,” Keefer says.

Simple flow

The system itself is simple. Water comes out of the building in a 4-inch Schedule 40 pipe and enters an existing three-chamber concrete block septic tank that provides settling and primary treatment. From the tank, water flows to a lift station that also receives wastewater from a grease trap serving the kitchen.

A 2-inch pipe lifts wastewater to a 4-inch pipe, and from there water flows by gravity through the Infiltrator chambers. At the entry to each row of chambers is a splash pad. Water flows across the ground and into another 4-inch pipe that carries it to the next set of chambers.

Pipes were laid on native soil, but the year-round temperature is 65 to 95 degrees F. Chambers were set on native soil. There was no gravel or other medium, and in any case, gravel is hard to come by in that part of the world.

The project used 180 Quick4 Equalizer 36 LP chambers. Total drainfield area is 1,400 square feet divided into four sections that wrap around three sides of the shelter building.

To maintain gravity flow through the system, the first set of chambers was set about 6 inches deep, the next about 12 inches, the third about 20 inches, and the last set at 35 to 36 inches.

Tropical heat

When Keefer visited in November, he had talked to the church’s local contact about getting an excavator for the project. He says the soil was the worst he has ever seen, a crumbly clay with plenty of rocks. In addition, his crew would be coming from a Midwestern winter to do physical work in tropical heat and humidity.

“None of us are in shape enough to grab shovels and go out there and start digging,” he says. “And our contact says, OK, I’ll get you an excavator.”

In February his group arrived to no excavator. “And our contact comes out, and he’s got three shovels. One of them had a broken handle,” Keefer says.

Asked to try again, the contact reached a city official. The House of Hope is a favorite of city officials, Keefer says, and this one assigned an operator and a backhoe to do the initial excavation. The group paid a rental company to provide a Takeuchi TB135 mini-excavator and an operator, but the skilled finish work was done with the Takeuchi by church volunteer Curt Markley who runs an excavator all the time in his job for Mark Haynes Construction in Collins, Ohio.

And the church group needed the machinery because of all the stones and the hard soil. In front of the house, the crew cut through a sidewalk to join one set of chambers to the next just below the sidewalk grade. At first the crew thought of boring a hole under the sidewalk.

“There were stones the size of a moose head under there,” Keefer says. “The excavator was having a hard time pulling them out.”

The excavator eventually cleared enough space for a single pipe, so the crew built a manifold to join the pipes from three rows of chambers into a single pipe. On the other side of the sidewalk, they installed another manifold to expand the flow into the next three rows of chambers.

The first day was spent organizing people and working out how to assemble the equipment waiting on site. In total the church group numbered 23. Keefer had a core group of four for the wastewater project, and that was supplemented by others who came and went depending on where they were needed. Between organizing, installing and finishing up, the project took six days.

Keefer spent a fair amount of time running parts. There was a decent hardware store about 10 minutes from the site, he says. Language was not a problem. Because Belize was once part of the British Empire, the primary language is English. The challenge was finding what his crew needed.

“Sometimes they had the parts. Sometimes they didn’t,” Keefer says. “Down there, if you want an elbow, you get a 90. That’s it.”

“It’s amazing how far 15 feet of Schedule 40 PVC will bend,” he adds.

Technology revealed

The group had to pay particular attention to staying safe. There were no hard hats, and safety glasses were available only to people who had brought them. Given restrictions on airline luggage, Keefer says, people did not have space for many pieces of PPE.

The church project did not answer all the wastewater needs at Marla’s House of Hope. A second septic tank serves the other side of the building, and it still discharges to the surface, Keefer says. But the tank now discharging into the Infiltrator system receives most of the wastewater from the building.

The project also attracted the interest of city officials in Belmopan. Though common in the U.S., Infiltrator technology was a revelation for the officials, several of whom stopped by to see the system firsthand.

There is talk of another mission trip to Belize, but Keefer doesn’t know if another wastewater system will play a part. He does know what came out of the February trip.

“It is one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in,” he says. “You see these girls in there; why do they have to live in squalor?” 


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