Giving drink to 60,000 — and counting

| Bridget Ryder | February 3, 2016 | 0 Comments
Tanzanian children collect running water from a well made possible through the Tanzania Life Project. The image has become an icon for Jim and Katie Vanderheyden, the organization’s founders. John Boyer/Courtesy Tanzania Life Project

Tanzanian children collect running water from a well made possible through the Tanzania Life Project. The image has become an icon for Jim and Katie Vanderheyden, the organization’s founders. John Boyer/Courtesy Tanzania Life Project

Local couple’s nonprofit provides clean water to Tanzanians

Part three in a 14-part Year of Mercy series highlighting local Catholics who live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

When Jim Vanderheyden retired from a 32-year engineering career with Honeywell in 1994, he had a list of 38 things he wanted to do. Founding an international humanitarian aid organization was not on it. Nevertheless, in 2006, at the age of 71, he and his wife, Katie, parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park, turned a chance trip to Tanzania into a charity that has brought clean water to more than 60,000 people.

“I thought if we could do that much good with a little money and a little organization, we just have to come back here,” Jim, 81, said of their first visit to Tanzania and their decision to start the Tanzania Life Project.

Characterizing the Vanderheydens’ work as a little organization would be an understatement, though.

It all started in 2004 when Ben Mlula, a native of Tanzania and an Episcopalian priest, found himself stranded in Minneapolis. His flight canceled, he spent the night with a fellow Episcopalian priest who happened to be a good friend of Lisa Vanderheyden, one of Jim and Katie’s eight children. On a subsequent visit in 2005, Mlula told his host and her friends about the lack of clean water and other problems in his village. The Americans responded by raising money and organizing a group to visit the village in May 2006. They had a vague idea of building a cistern to capture rain water, but with little technical expertise among them, the purpose of their trip and what they would be able to accomplish seemed unclear.

“If my dad hadn’t been there, we probably wouldn’t have gotten that much done on that first trip,” recalled Lisa, 52.

Knowing her father’s experience as an engineer, she had invited her parents to join the adventure.

“I suppose the idea was let’s go and help the guy out and then we’ll take a quick couple days in the animal park, because we will probably never come back,” Jim said.

Jim and Katie Vanderheyden, parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park, founded the Tanzania Life Project, a nonprofit organization that provides clean water to Tanzanian villages. Courtesy Jim and Katie Vanderheyden

Jim and Katie Vanderheyden, parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park, founded the Tanzania Life Project, a nonprofit organization that provides clean water to Tanzanian villages. Courtesy Jim and Katie Vanderheyden

‘I like challenges’ 

In preparation for that 2006 trip, Jim was immersed in figuring out how to build a water system in Mlula’s village, Mtumba. His experience of getting men to the moon while working in Honeywell’s Apollo program had taught him how to innovate and organize, but this was his first venture into international planning.

“I had an awful job getting ahold of the right person. It was kind of a challenge, but I like challenges,” he recalled.

After two months of dead ends, Jim reached the local engineering office in Dodoma, the administrative capital of the country, about 15 miles away from Mtumba. Overcoming cultural differences, time zone changes and language barriers, he learned through emails and phone calls that Mtumba had a well. The German government built it in the 1960s, but for years it had been mud-clogged with a broken pump. He was also able to set up a meeting with the local authorities for when he arrived in Tanzania. He would have nine days to get water flowing.

On the ground, the advance planning paid off. With the help of Mlula, an estimate for the needed repairs was waiting in his hotel room in Dodoma. At the meeting, Jim contacted the water department to do a full-scale exploration of the well. Later, as the work progressed, he hired a digger. A week into their trip, they were still waiting for water. Then on day eight, it streamed out of the well line.

“Ben was standing on top of the reservoir, and he went crazy,” Jim recalled. “No one could believe it. It had been off for so many years.”

Per Tanzanian regulations, water from a well must flow for 24 hours to ensure the well’s sustainability before it can be saved in a reservoir. But no one waited. Children came running and women lined up with gallon buckets to capture every drop of water they could. John Boyer, another member of the group and a professional photographer, snapped a shot of children happily examining the running water. The image has become an icon for the Vanderheydens.

“It was a turning point in life,” Jim recalled. “We saw these kids come running to not waste any water. Then, our friend Ben said there’s hundreds of villages like this, and many don’t even have a well.”

That’s when the Vanderheydens knew they’d have to come back.

Jim Vanderheyden holds one of hundreds of books that Tanzania Life Project gave to a primary school in Mtumba, Tanzania. Courtesy Jim and Katie Vanderheyden

Jim Vanderheyden holds one of hundreds of books that Tanzania Life Project gave to a primary school in Mtumba, Tanzania. Courtesy Jim and Katie Vanderheyden

‘Everyone should have clean water’

When they returned to Minnesota, the Vanderheydens immediately started forming a nonprofit to continue the work. The following winter, Mlula appealed to Jim for more help. The village was running low on food. Jim made another trip to Tanzania to survey the situation and bring what aid he could.

“At the beginning, we weren’t really sure what our mission was going to be,” he said, adding that the needs of villages in Tanzania are so great that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

In the early years, along with building wells, TLP delved into other development projects. Though solar ovens and a tractor to help with farming weren’t as effective as they’d hoped, partnering with other organizations for micro-financing the entrepreneurial small business projects of women and HIV/AIDS patients has been successful, as have legal, education and mediation programs. TLP has also supplied textbooks and made improvements to the village schools. Water, though, has always been its central focus.

“When you go over there and see that they have nothing and dirty water,” said Katie, 81, “we felt that we couldn’t come home and drink clean water and have them drinking dirty water. Everyone should have clean water.”

Without a central source of clean water, villagers dig shallow wells or collect water from dirty lakes. Often, the water is far from the village and hazardous to collect. Waterborne diseases are rampant. Looking at the big picture and Jim’s skill set, they determined that supplying one of life’s most basic needs was the most effective way to be of service.

 A Tanzanian man fetches water in a surface well hole, which the Tanzania Life Project made possible. Courtesy Jim and Katie Vanderheyden

A Tanzanian man fetches water in a surface well hole, which the Tanzania Life Project made possible. Courtesy Jim and Katie Vanderheyden

“If people have a fundamental problem [with] water, surely there is something I can do. I guess I had the background,” Jim explained.

The Vanderheydens are involved in every aspect of running TLP, from taxes to fundraising to navigating the complexities of African society. It’s a full-time job.

“Just deciding what village to help is a very hard and political decision, and you don’t know what is going on [on] the ground,” Lisa explained.

That’s where Jim relies on faith and prayer.

“He calls them ‘God moments’,” said their son, John Vanderheyden, 56, who has been involved with TLP from the beginning and lives in Austin, Texas.

It happens time and again. A financial need will arise or a disagreement in Tanzania will block the water project, and then suddenly a donation comes through or two factions come to an agreement.

“Everything we’ve done from day one, you can just feel the guiding hand. You wonder, ‘What am I going to do?’ and you get there and you know what to do. You know when the Lord is on your side,” Jim said.

Motivated by faith, empathy

Each well costs approximately $100,000 and takes a year to complete. The villagers start the work by digging the trenches for the well lines. With two annual fundraising drives going out to 18 lists of people, many of whom are family and friends, TLP is able to help about one village a year. To date, TLP has supplied water to nine villages in Tanzania.

Last year, TLP started its biggest project yet — the Igandu Project, which will service a cluster of three villages and bring water to 12,500 people. It is slated for completion this year. More than 80 villages have applied
for assistance.

From the outside, the Vanderheydens don’t give the impression of being intrepid African travelers responsible for more than $1 million in foreign development. Pictures of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren decorate the walls of their apartment in a retirement community in Osseo, testifying to the couple’s 61 years of marriage. Only a collection of handmade African art — gifts from villagers — in the small office that is the American headquarters of TLP show their connection with Tanzania.

“He’s someone who has always been taking the lead, and his faith has always been a part of that,” John said of his father.

The couple has attended daily Mass since high school, and Jim has been a retreat captain at the Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo for 35 years. They also volunteer at Sharing and Caring Hands in Minneapolis. According to their children, empathy, commitment and a strong faith motivate their parents.

“He’s a very, very empathic person,” Lisa said.

Jim just wants to do what he can to help. “You work hard,” he said, “and just hope you don’t get in God’s way.

For more information about the Tanzania Life Project, visit TanzanialLifeProject.org.

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Category: Featured, Year of Mercy