RI Rotary Club on mission to flood Africa with clean water

Rock Island Rotarian Marcy Bell, center, amid a sea of students at a remote Nairobi, Kenya school. The schoolchildren were gathered to celebrate the water filter provided for them by the Rotary Club. CREDIT DICK FISLAR

Since 2017 Rock Island Rotarians have been on a mission to provide clean water to rural African village schools more than 1,800 miles from the club’s weekly Rock Island Botanical Center gathering space. 

To date, club members along with other generous Rotarians across western Illinois and eastern Iowa, have donated 288 water filters that are providing desperately needed clean water to more than 20,000 schoolchildren in rural, isolated villages, longtime Rock Island Rotary leader Bob Swanson said.

The critical need for water in Kenya first got on that club’s radar in 2015 after Rock Island Rotarian Sam Wray and his wife Hilde went on safari. They were touched by the poverty and preventable diseases that led to the deaths of too many children, Mr. Swanson said.

Mr. Wray challenged Mr. Swanson and fellow Rock Island Rotarian Dr. Richard L. “Bud’’ Phillis to find a way to make a difference.

They not only accepted the challenge to find a solution, like effective missionaries everywhere, the pair soon began spreading the word and sharing what Mr. Swanson calls their “dog and pony show” about the need for lifesaving water filters to any club or organization willing to listen. 

  • That need is critical and the data compelling. Consider these hard-to-swallow facts Mr. Swanson shared in a Rotary District 6420 newsletter:
  • Nearly two billion people have no access to safe drinking water, including one-half of Kenya.
  • 88% of childhood illnesses are related to contaminated water and poor sanitation.
  • 443 million school days are lost each year due to water-related diseases. 
  • Patients suffering from waterborne diseases occupy 50% of all hospital beds in the developing world.
  • 361,000 children under the age of 5 die each year from diarrhea. 
  • At least 3,000 and possibly as many as 5,000 children die each day from diseases caused by unsafe water. 
Ruth Lee, Marcy Bell and the late Mary Fislar, Rock Island Rotarians, pose with a teacher and the principal of a remote Nairobi village school next to the Rotary-donated water filter. CREDIT DICK FISLAR

Those diseases are both preventable and treatable and Mr. Swanson and Dr. Phillis set out to find a way to make a difference. Among the options considered was drilling wells. They rejected that path after discovering expensive wells are often abandoned due to lack of money for fuel and the expertise and resources to repair them. 

Eventually their search led them to the Vestergaard LifeStraw, a product Forbes Magazine called “One of the 10 Things That Will Change the Way We Live.”

Price low, impact widespread

Of special interest was the Vestergaard Community Water Filter, which costs around $350 including delivery and installation, and provides enough clean water for 75 people per day. The filter also is chemical-free, requires no fuel, no electricity and no batteries. 

And the units are fast-acting. During a demonstration, Dr. Phillis poured muddy water and urine into one of the filters, which can purify between 70,000-100,000 liters of water or enough to serve community settings for several years. About 15 minutes later, he was sharing samples with Rock Island Rotarians who volunteered to sip the now clean water.

The project began with the initial purchase of 35 filters. The club’s first filter was bought through a coin drive by the Rock Island Rotary-sponsored Jordan Catholic Elementary School’s EarlyAct Club, Mr. Swanson said.  The Wrays followed early efforts with a $10,000 donation to the Rock Island club to keep the project going. 

Other clubs and individuals have since joined what is now known as the Western Illinois – Eastern Iowa Rotary Water Project. Included are clubs from Dixon, East Moline-Silvis, Erie, Galesburg, Galva, Geneseo, Milan, Moline, Morrison and Putnam County in Illinois; and Tipton, Iowa, Mr. Swanson said. 

Individual Rotarians have been generous, with 27 members purchasing 216 filters and more than 100 others making contributions toward the purchase of filters, Mr. Swanson said. Every week the Rock Island club also donates money toward the purchase of a filter in the name of its guest speaker.

Clean water in action

Not only has the project’s reach grown geographically, its impact is both growing and well documented. For example, the Rock Island club receives follow up letters and photos from villages where filters have been delivered and installed by Replenish, a Christian nonprofit based in Arlington, Texas. And Rotarians who have visited remote villages that have received water filters bearing the Rotary emblem are treated like royalty, Mr. Swanson said. 

Rock Island Rotarian Ruth Lee has seen the project’s impact firsthand. The then Rotary district governor joined Dick Fislar, his wife Mary Fislar and her twin sister Marcy Bell, both of whom are Rock Island Rotarians, on an African safari in Kenya. While there, they arranged stops in villages that were drinking clear water from club-donated water filters.  

“At both schools we visited, we were very warmly received,” Ms. Lee told the QCBJ. “We met with school officials and teachers. The children prepared special songs and dances in our honor.”

Mr. Fislar also wrote about the villagers they met and the conditions they encountered in his book “Where in the World Are Dick & Mary.” It chronicles some of Mr. Fislar’s travels with his late wife, who died in September 2023. 

“The trip from a five-star hotel to impoverished schools in Nairobi was a shocking eyeopener to all of us,” he wrote in the 2022 travelog.  

“We traveled through areas where roadsides were blanketed with trash. Women were attempting to wash clothes in streams which were chocolate brown in color. Others were filling water jugs in these same polluted streams to take home for their personal use,” he noted.

“Our driver told us the only pure water some children ever get is through the programs provided by Rotary,” he added.

And that polluted water problem is not confined to Nairobi or even Kenya. As Mr. Swanson noted, “The project is an ongoing process and with 2 billion people in our world without safe, sanitary drinking water, there is no projected end to the effort.” 

That’s why he and Dr. Phillis will continue to “hit the road” to spread the word to Rotary, Rotaract, Interact, and EarlyAct Clubs and “keep going wherever people will listen.”

To help spread the word, and request material or a presentation on the Rotary water filter project, contact Mr. Swanson at rotaryclubrockisland@gmail.com.  

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