Florida plumber puts trade skills to work in Haiti
Just weeks after inquiring about volunteer opportunities with the organization Plumbers Without Borders, Florida master plumber Fred Schilling found himself on a plane to Haiti. The devastating earthquake of January 2010 had just occurred, and the need for clean water was as pressing as that for medicine, food and shelter.
In a Tailgate interview for Fine Homebuilding, Fred detailed his experience in the battered city of Port-au-Prince, where he would return several times to distribute tools, share his knowledge and lend a helping hand to young men and women studying a trade largely taken for granted in the United States. “In America, no one gives it a second thought-you wake up in the morning, turn on your faucet and safe water flows out,” Fred told me. “In Haiti, it’s a matter of life and death. If you’re a student studying water and sanitation in Haiti, you realize how important this information is.” That importance was reinforced months after the quake by an ongoing cholera outbreak that has claimed more than 8,000 lives. Cholera is a bacterial disease commonly spread through infected water.
Fred’s work centered on the installation of simple-but-effective water purification systems designed by graduate students at Seattle University. Along with a team of students from Haiti Tec (Centre de Formation Technique et Professionnelle), a trade school in Port-au-Prince, Fred helped install the systems in clinics, hospitals and schools. The team also created several kiosks to provide clean water for local residents at a cost of about a penny a gallon.
With these systems in place, Fred and others are now at work on a licensing program for Haitian plumbers so that they can work on new building projects in their country. Currently, most plumbing jobs at construction projects in Haiti go to foreigners with licenses, he says. He’d like to change that.
To find out more about Plumbers without Borders, click here.
When Fred came upon this home in Port-au-Prince following the January 2010 earthquake, he found the owners living in their car. He learned that they had built the house themselves, and he shared his own story of building a similar one here in the States with his son and friends. "A very sad conversation," Fred said. "I wished them well, gave a few hugs … What else can you say?"
Fred tests water quality at a hospital outside the city of Saint-Marc, about 60 miles from Port-au-Prince. The Florida plumber went to Haiti with the organization Plumbers Without Borders to assist in the installation of water-purification systems following the catastrophic earthquake in January 2010. Haiti's ongoing cholera epidemic--which has killed more than 8,000 people--broke out in the Saint-Marc area 10 months after the earthquake.
On his trip, Fred quickly saw the school's lack of common plumbing tools. Upon his return home, Plumbers Without Borders launched a "Tools For Haiti" drive that enabled Fred to return on his next trip with 10 boxes of hand tools. "You can't imagine their excitement when the boxes were opened," he said.
Fred and plumbing instructor Mackenson Picot stand among students in a plumbing workshop at Haiti-Tec school in Port-au-Prince. In getting to know the students, Fred told of his experiences heading up a multitude of complex plumbing projects in Florida. "Part of my goal is not only teaching them to be skilled plumbers but inspiring them to be successful plumbers," he said. "They have no role models of successful plumbers in their country, so I try to convey that image to help them understand where this new skill can lead them."
The systems installed by the team are simple but effective. Water passes through a series of filter cartridges and into a container with a UV light. Each system can produce about 10,000 gallons of clean, safe drinking water every 24 hours. Once installed, they are maintained by students from the plumbing school.
Plumbing instructor Mackenson Picot holds up a copy of the Florida Building Code donated to the program. "It's hard to convey in the photo how emotional this moment was," Fred said. "I had spent five days prior to this moment touring around Port-au-Prince with Mr. Picot and had seen many terrible sights. We had talked often about how the lack of a building code attributed to so many of the deaths from the earthquake, both of us knowing that had there been a code, so many lives would have been saved. So the passing of the code book symbolizes hope for Haiti's future, going forward."
Fred poses with Samuel, a Haiti-Tec student who now works as a plumber for the U.S. embassy outside Port-au-Prince. Says Fred: "Part of my philosophy that I teach all young plumbers both here and in Haiti is that you should always be so proud of the work you do that you would want to have your picture taken standing next to it. So here we are, standing proud, in front of Samuel's super-fine work."
Fred's favorite Haitian photo is this one: two young girls standing in front of a newly-installed water purification system in Saint-Marc, Haiti. "This is who is on the receiving end of our water-purification systems." Fred says. "It's a photo that to me illustrates why what we do is so worth it."