Whitefish woman helps deliver clean water in Africa

Heidi Rickels from Whitefish has never been to Malawi, but has been helping people in this tiny Southeast African country access clean drinking water for a decade.

Since 2011, Rickels and its Freshwater Project International have been helping villages, schools and health facilities in Malawi fight water-borne diseases by drilling and maintaining wells, as well as installing water supply systems. whole water.

After graduating from the University of Kansas with a business degree, Rickels felt dissatisfied working in marketing.

“It was a good job, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “I worked with non-profit organizations while working with an accounting firm and decided that I wanted to be more involved in these kinds of organizations, especially at the international level.”

After resuming his studies at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver, Rickels joined Project Cure, a large non-profit organization that provides medical supplies and equipment to developing countries around the world.

It was during his work with Project Cure that Rickels found his niche.

“I really fell in love with telling the stories of people, especially people who are affected by the issues we are dealing with,” she said. “I liked letting people know what a huge impact even the smallest level of involvement can have.”

IT WAS also during this time when Rickels met Charles Banda in 2004, a native of Malawi who had come to Denver on a four-month fellowship to learn marketing.

As Rickels passed on his knowledge, Banda told him about water problems in his home country and the fact that 70% of people in health facilities in Malawi were there because of preventable water-borne illnesses and water-related diseases.

The two remained friends after Banda returned to Malawi, with Rickels and his family helping to sponsor a water well there.

Rickels was at home with his young son in 2009 when Banda told Rickels he was returning to the United States to help promote Amy Hart’s documentary “Water First,” which featured Banda’s work in Malawi.

Seeking to undertake a new project, Rickels worked with Hart to help organize a screen tour of nine cities, culminating with a presentation at the American Public Health Association conference in Philadelphia.

Continuing his cause, Rickels helped found Freshwater Project International in 2011 to help raise funds for the Banda Freshwater Project in Malawi.

BOTH ORGANIZATIONS were rocked by sudden death from cancer in Banda in 2013 and Freshwater Project International was established as a non-governmental organization in Malawi, where it would directly tackle the drinking water problem.

Progress was modest at first, with funds going to repair and maintain water wells, but the organization soon contracted with local workers to help drill new wells in several villages.

After raising funds to purchase their own drilling equipment, the organization began working with Proctor and Gamble and their Children’s Clean Drinking Water Initiative to help bring in even more water, sanitation and hygiene projects. (WASH) in schools in Malawi.

The work continued to expand and Freshwater Project International entered into a new partnership with Engineers Without Borders to help install new water supply systems in health facilities in Malawi. Their pilot project has installed wells, holding tanks and solar pumps at eight facilities over the past two years, with plans for systems at 23 additional facilities in Zomba Town over the next five to seven years.

ALTHOUGH RICKELS has not yet been able to travel to Malawi to see the fruits of her labor, she was able to send a number of interns and staff while continuing to visit schools and organizations in the United States to help raise awareness of his cause.

“I was lucky enough to be able to interact with interns who were able to travel to Malawi for me. In the past, I couldn’t visit because I had young children and just when I thought I could finally make the trip, then Covid hit, ”she said. “Fortunately, most of my work can be done from anywhere. I even gave a presentation for a big conference once from my car while watching my kid’s soccer game. I’m trying to find a way to connect people and expand their worldview. I want people to see that they can have an impact on the well-being of people all over the world.

Rickels brought this passion for Malawi with her when she and her husband Steve, along with their children Aiden and Ashley moved from Colorado to Whitefish last year.

She hopes to continue her educational efforts in the Flathead Valley and beyond.

“I know it’s easy to get carried away by your own world, what you experience every day and the challenges you face. It’s all put in a different perspective when you put yourself in other people’s shoes and see their needs, ”she said. “Can’t we all come together to tackle bigger issues, like making sure everyone has access to clean water? “

Journalist Jeremy Weber can be reached at 406-758-4446 or [email protected]

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