Veterans Without Orders (VWO) is a veteran-led, nonprofit clean water organization that assists populations without clean water and other essential services. They use the skills they developed while serving in the military to conduct humanitarian projects worldwide. Their holistic approach to providing clean water to communities combines distribution of water filters with sanitation training, logistical support of materials, basic health care, and supplies. They have chosen Project WET’s water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) curriculum for their education component for its cultural relevance and ease of implementation and are now seeking funding to support the adaptation of this curriculum for the COVID-19 pandemic. To access our WASH curriculum for free, visit projectwet.org/WASH.
We were lucky enough to have a virtual Q and A with VWO director John Nonnemaker to learn more about how they use Project WET!
Why did you choose to focus on water in these communities? Why is water important for their development and stability?
In John’s experience, limited access to clean water is the root cause of many challenges: “I’ve been to roughly 56 countries and what I realized is that a lot of people want instant gratification when doing humanitarian work. But, if you peel back the issues, you realize that a lot of them are caused by water. It’s hard to raise funding for water in the US because we don’t think of it. It’s just hard for them to relate, but it is a root cause of about half the issues in the world.”
Why was it essential to include an education component in your project?
“I think in the US, people assume things are common knowledge when it comes to water, sanitation, and hygiene, but that’s not always true,” says John. “I was training kitchen staff at an orphanage in Haiti on proper handwashing technique. One of the women was upset and crying because no one had ever told her that she needed to wash her hands. It’s not common knowledge there, just as many of the topics in the Project WET curriculum are not common knowledge: how fast germs spread and what soap really does at the scientific level. You can’t just walk in and tell people they’ve been doing things wrong. Supporting communities with education is the most effective way to create lasting cultural change.”
How did VWO choose Project WET WASH activities for water education?
For Veterans Without Orders, Project WET was adaptable and easy to implement. “For creating a standardized project using a few pieces of technology and this curriculum, Project WET seemed easier. It adapted to any village we went into. We were primarily focused on educating children on water, sanitation, and hygiene. It’s easier to teach the children and then charge them to teach their parents. I’m not a hygiene expert. I’m not a WASH expert. I’ve been doing it for a while, but this curriculum is super easy. Recently in Nicaragua, a 13-year-old girl was trained in Project WET and went on to share the activities with others.”
How has VWO been adapting to COVID-19?
Veterans Without Orders had already made a significant impact on health in developing countries through years of WASH education when the COVID-19 pandemic began. As John explains, “We might not be able to see it, but how many lives have we saved? How many outbreaks have we prevented in Central America where we primarily taught the WASH curriculum?”
Unfortunately, many of Project WET’s WASH activities are difficult to use while practicing social distancing. For John, there’s a sense of urgency to this problem. “We’re looking to go to Guatemala in January and help at least 15-17 schools while we’re there. We want to make sure, knowing that these activities and lessons are shared widely in the areas we serve, that we don’t hurt more than help.”
To adapt these activities and safely continue their life-saving work, they will need more funding. They hope to receive support from Rotary International to partner with Project WET in adapting the activities. “I don’t know what it will look like, but I do know that in the games we have played with glitter representing germs, it looks like a Code 9 glitter outbreak in the village when we’re done, which really gets the point across about germ transmission.” John hopes to be able to use similar activities without putting children and families in danger due to close proximity.
Without adaptations to continue using Project WET in these villages, the consequences could be dire. “The status quo would be keeping things like cholera and diarrhea within their communities, but I think the stakes are a lot higher now that it’s cholera, diarrhea, and COVID-19,” says John. He notes that educators are struggling to adapt even in the United States where schools usually have plenty of clean water and soap. The schools served by VWO have limited access to sanitation facilities. Any amount of education they can provide will greatly reduce the spread of the virus in that area.
What stories do you have to share?
“During one recent session in Guatemala, a woman didn’t appear to be fully engaged in the training. When I asked her if everything was okay, she explained that she’d already been involved in the Project WET program the previous year. She then revealed that she was also a teacher and had gone on to share her newfound knowledge with her students. From there, she had trained her fellow teachers in the same curriculum so that they could educate their own students. Having received a water filter through the previous year’s program, she was also bringing clean water from her home to share with her school every day. That was an ‘aha moment.’ This one person who just happened to be in one of our classes helped spread knowledge very widely.”