Arlington sponsors life-saving fresh water for kids in Panama

Ron Powers, owner of Arlington based RTI Manufacturing, Dave McKellar, principal of Marysville Quil Ceda Elementary School and David Jeffers, Operation Safe Drinking Water administrator, muscle a water tank through the muddy mangroves.   - Courtesy photo
Ron Powers, owner of Arlington based RTI Manufacturing, Dave McKellar, principal of Marysville Quil Ceda Elementary School and David Jeffers, Operation Safe Drinking Water administrator, muscle a water tank through the muddy mangroves.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Arlington has a sister city in Panama.

Bocas del Toro and Arlington are sister cities in an effort to save the lives of children by providing clean water through Operation Safe Drinking Water, an international non-profit organization.

The project got its start in Arlington several years ago and now hundreds of isolated indigenous children and their families are experiencing new health and hope, according to Eleanor Guderian. 

Operation Safe Drinking Water was born when David and Joellen Jeffers, coffee distributors from Arlington, traveled to Panama to buy coffee beans directly from the growers.

When they returned home, they were carrying more than beans.

They brought back in their hearts a growing desire to help the impoverished people they met in Panama.

Within a couple of years, the Jeffers had sold their home and coffee business and moved to an island in Panama. Although language was an initial barrier, the couple could understand that their biggest needs were for fresh water, medical and dental care and education.

They built a tiny cabin, set up a first-aid station, developed a donor program to provide education for children, and established a non-profit organization to raise money for water systems.

Back home, the Guderians and Fackenthalls, of Stanwood, were following these projects with interest. In 2003, these two families went to help, taking with them medical and dental expertise along with as many supplies as the airlines would permit.

As they treated illnesses, fixed teeth and taught hygiene, they became increasingly aware that many of the medical issues were related to unsanitary water. The locals were surrounded by ocean salt water, but their only sources of drinking water were stagnant streams or shallow holes dug for bathing, washing clothes and sharing with livestock.

Since that first trip, Christ the King Church, of Arlington, has become a primary partner in the project. Every year, during spring break, a team travels to Panama. Builders install water systems, medical and dental professionals treat patients, and young people assist in construction and interact with the local children.

A 21-year-old machinist who went on the 2007 trip, Tim Powers said it was a life changing trip. 

“I had never been to a developing country where people live in little shacks. I feel like even though I went there to serve, everything about the experience impacted me,” Powers said.

His sister, 18-year-old Catherine Powers participated in both the 2008 and 2009 programs. Now a student at Everett Community College, she thought it would be fun to do face painting and play games with the kids, but in the end she learned the good feeling of helping people.

“It was really awesome to help people there by cleaning their teeth and installing water systems,” said Catherine Powers.

A freshman at Arlington High School, Abigail Schranck went for the second time this year. Despite bug bites, sunburn and sleeping under mosquito netting in rustic accommodations, she still wants to go back.

“I love the local native people, especially the children. The hard work was worth the adventure,” Schranck said.

During the March ‘09 trip, six water-catching systems were installed to serve more than 100 people. 

Now, Christ the King Church in Arlington, which meets 10 a.m. Sundays at President Elementary School, is looking for more help in preparation for yet another trip next spring, and Pastor Rick Schranck is gearing up.

“It means so much to know you are doing something to improve the lives of others,” Rick Schranck said.

Even more amazing to the pastor is the effect the project has had on his church community.

“We’re just a small independent church and yet our people have given so much to support this project,” he said.

Many team members have returned for multiple trips; others are providing scholarships for the children of Panama; and then there are those who are raising funds to purchase more water tanks.

Arlington dentist Dr. Al Erickson plans to be a part of the 2010 group.

He has volunteered locally with the mobile dental clinics of Medical Teams International, a partner that provides medical supplies for the Panama team. This will be his first overseas project.

“I’ve always wanted to do something like this but I am not very adventurous,” Dr. Erickson said to team leader, Aleph Fackenthall.

“I need guys like you and Dr. Guderian to take the lead.”

Anyone interested in learning more should go to the Web site at or watch for them in Arlington’s Grand Parade on the Fourth of July.

“We’ll be passing out fresh drinking water and brochures about the project,” Eleanor Guderian said.

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