The Mustard Seed Peace Project Club, is a group of students dedicated to providing access to clean water solutions and currently helping to design and then help build latrines and handwashing stations in Las Mojarras, Guatemala.
According to the CDC, over 785 million people lack access to water, more than 800 million people don’t have safe drinking water and about 25 percent of the world does not have access to basic sanitation methods. People without access to clean water face developmental problems, disease, lack of crops and livestock and means to support themselves, creating a cycle of poverty that is hard to break.
Elizabeth Bourgeois, an engineering graduate student from Waterloo, Illinois, is president of the Mustard Seed Peace Project Club. She said she joined the club in 2019 while trying to find a group that fit for her, and fell into the role of president after others in the group graduated because she loves helping people. She is now looking forward to the possibility of their group traveling to Las Mojarras, Guatemala, this December, after their trip was canceled last year due to the pandemic, she said.
Bourgeois said projects differ between the Mustard Seed Peace Project nonprofit organization in Godfrey, Illinois, and the student club but the focus is the same.
“We go to different communities, but all of these communities are impoverished communities that need help … with sanitation and education,” Bourgeois said. “Those areas [Virginia, San Alfonso and Las Mojarras] are very rural communities. They are that way because there was a civil war and refugees fled to Guatemala and they got [pieces] of poor land that Guatemala was able to give. This land wasn’t the best for water or growing crops … so as these communities have grown, they’ve grown on land that is not the best, which has led to issues.”
Bourgeois said the focus on sanitation access is most important because gastrointestinal illness is prevalent in those areas where residents are lacking clean water and the ability to wash their hands.
“The student club has only worked on latrines because we are primarily an engineering organization,” Bourgeois said. “The [Mustard Seed organization], they have a water project that the student club is helping with. The water project has to do with wells, latrines, hand washing stations, trying to get clean water to the communities as well as helping sanitation.“
Bourgeois said while some of the members are engineering students who design plans for the latrines and wells, not all students interested in the club have to have that background.
“We have a foreign language student, education students, anthropology, all sorts, because anyone is welcome, anyone can travel, anyone can fundraise. It’s all going towards the same thing, which is helping those communities. Everyone is welcome,” Bourgeois said.
The student club was formed in 2018 to fill a need after the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders was disbanded.Those students had previously helped Mustard Seed Peace Project founder, Terri Cranmer, of Godfrey, Illinois, with projects in the past. Cranmer said students are overseen by a mentor group of engineers, including engineers from Boeing.
Safeta Grozdanic, a senior biology student from St. Louis and secretary for the campus club said she joined after her best friend, who is also Bourgeois’ sister, told her what they were doing.
“She introduced me into the club and just kind of basically told me what they're about and how we could help people in South America get clean water and latrines and how we could possibly be traveling over there to be building them and designing them as well,” Grozdanic said. “And it all sounded really interesting and it sounded like a great cause. I really wanted to get involved.”
Grozdanic, who began as an engineering student, said she wasn’t sure if her switch to biology would help the group, but found the club benefitted from different types of students to get different ideas from.
“In the engineering aspect it helps people; the students organize, design and work with Engineers Without Borders USA, design these latrines and, … I think [it’s] really good because we're exposed to different cultures. I guess diversity would be another thing that's really good for the students to be exposed to, because a lot of people have not traveled outside of the U.S.,” Grozdanic said.
Grozdanic also said while the club is there to help the community, it is really helpful for students too, because it helps introduce concepts of diversity, engineer training, organization, design as they learn, and understanding the length of the process and how to navigate channels to finish the projects.
Cranmer said after attending a mission trip with friends to Guatemala in 2004, she knew she had found what she wanted to do. A stay-at-home mom at the time, Cranmer said she began working on building a nonprofit group — by 2005, everything she was working toward really took off and she reached out to SIUE.
“From the very beginning, it was very important that I share this with as many people as possible. I decided that maybe one of the ways to do that would be to provide people with the opportunity to have an international experience … and that kind of led me into the direction of the students,” Cranmer said. “It was just as important to provide that opportunity for the students to travel there — or even if they don't get to travel, they have the experience of working on or working to develop a project in a foreign country.”
Cranmer said she has had students from SIUE, SIUC, Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, and Lewis and Clark Community College college in Godfrey travel on different trips all providing different backgrounds of education. Students’ educational backgrounds have ranged from Spanish speaking, nurses, engineers and others who just want to help in any way they can, she said, because they do more than just provide clean water options.
“Our real focus is public health, education, public health and community development. So, it's very broad [and] a lot of things fall under that scope. We currently have a well project going in Virginia, Guatemala,” Cranmer said. “We have the students at SIUE who [are] working with us on the hand washing stations and latrines for Las Mojarras.”
Cranmer said their projects are community led, which means that communities tell them what their needs are and with the help of community leaders, organizations and the residents, the nonprofit helps to fill those needs. She said she is currently planning for an educational conference that will help assist educators and schools in these communities in filling the needs of students.
“It's important for me to get input from the communities on what they feel works, and what they would like to see us do differently,” Cranmer said. “My job requires a lot of relationship building. I really like that, it's fun. I would say 50 percent of what I do is relationship building, you know, connecting people and projects.”
Nathan Buecher, a senior computer engineering major from Fairview Heights, Illinois, and vice president of the club said students are also building some of the latrines not just designing them. The most important aspect though is the long-term sustainable impact on residents, he said.
“Ideally, [we build] one set of two dry latrines and one set of two composting latrines. Then we want to leave the community with design guides and other resources and they work with us building on those two latrines, so they have the means to build more,” Buecher said.
Beucher, who also serves as a project lead between the students and engineers, said the volunteer engineers who mentor the student group work with them every step of the way to ensure that their plans fit the needs of the community.
“[The dry latrine, the composting latrine and the handwashing station will] go through their own design process, which will be structural integrity, estimating waste quantities based on the population and the time it's going to be in use, if it's going to be big enough,” Buecher said. “Similar things for the hand washing station, if it's going hold enough water because it's currently collecting from rainwater … So based on the frequency of rain, is it going to get them through? Those are like a lot of your initial considerations.”
Grozdanic said she was happy for the group to be able to get together outside for their recent Cornhole Tournament Fundraiser in April.
“The fundraiser was a great turnout. It was great. It was so much fun to have people out there supporting us and just explaining to people what we're actually doing,” Grozdanic said. “It was just a good time.”
Grozdanic said funds from the fundraisers are used not only for student travel but to purchase supplies once they travel to Guatemala.
“These are the supplies for the latrines and the washing stations for the three different communities that we're working on. We raise all that money and those are just through donations or fundraisers that we've been doing,” Grozdanic said.
Grozdanic said they are currently planning a 5K fundraiser for later this year.
Bourgeois, who has become a board member of the founding organization, said she hopes to continue on after graduating in 2022 in some capacity with the students.
“I think I'll be a part of this organization for a long time. It means a lot to me, because no one in [the] Mustard Seed organization is doing it for any personal reasons, it is just to help others and to spread a little bit more good into the world,” Bourgeois said. “I don't want to stop. I want to help as much as I possibly can. I'm hoping that as I get older, I can help young students in the future travel and help others, too.”
Cranmer said donations of school supplies and basic medical supplies, such as bandages, are always welcome.
Students interested in joining the Mustard Seed Peace Project Club can contact Elizabeth through GetInvolved or call 340-8405.