The journey begins

The arrival and gift opening

The best present of all

The children of Chiapas

The best present of all

Emma Poole
Calgary Herald
Chiapas, Lazaro Cardenas

Sandra Rios of Samaritan's Purse installing a water filter on a property in the small community of Lazaro Cardenas in the Chiapas Region of Mexico, during the Samaritan's Purse, Operation Christmas Child (OCC) Mission Trip to Chiapas, Mexico.

Herbert Guillen Silva is sick. His stomach is full of worms and parasites that came from unclean drinking water in his small village of Lazaro Cardenas, located in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas.

He has no choice but to drink it day after day. Silva can not afford to boil the water because wood to keep a fire burning is too expensive.

His house is nothing more than a mud floor with flimsy planks as walls and a tin roof.

The 28 year-old farmer lives with six other family members in the shanty where they raise pigs and chickens to sell to wealthy Guadamalans who come to southern Mexico to buy cheap livestock.

Silva has accepted a life of poverty, but can not stand to see his children fall ill time after time because of the unsuitable water they drink, bathe in and use to cook their food.

Silva's prayers were answered when a team of Canadians, including eight Calgarians with Samaritan's Purse visited the village to install five BioSand Water Filters.

The best gift Lazaro Cardenas and many other villages in Mexico can receive is clean water.

University of Calgary professor David Manz pioneered the development of the filter, an inexpensive way of purifying water.

The filters can be easily constructed in developing countries in less than two days and they protect communities from water-borne parasites, bacteria, viruses and odour problems.

It uses a "biologically active layer" - which looks like scum - to filter out organic toxins that cause waterborne diseases.

About 80 per cent of all illnesses in developing countries are due to waterborne organisms such as parasites, bacteria and viruses.

Manz's filter, which has been tested in Chile, Honduras, Cambodia, Nicaragua and Canada, can eliminate between 95 and 99 per cent of all organisms.

"The water that is piped in from a near by lagoon is contaminated with fecal material and pesticides," said Silva through Spanish speaking team member, Calgarian Gary Paukert.

"(The filter) means a lot to us because the water is so dirty. It's impossible for us to buy filtered water because we don't have the money, plus the nearest town is 1/2 hour away."

A mother and her child wait to see Edmonton doctor, Allan Walker, at a makeshift clinic in Lazaro Cardenas.

In the 1980s, Manz spent some time in Zululand in southern Africa and on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines as water specialist examining sanitation.

Manz spent the next several years developing the simple, cheap and effective filtration system.

Samaritan's Purse team leader Sandra Rios sat down with Silva and the other Mexican villagers teaching them how to install and keep the filters clean.

As neighbours gathered into Silva's small yard Rios step by step installed the cement filter in less than one hour, much to the delight of the family who for the first time saw a silver lining around the dark cloud that had been hanging over their heads.

The first bucket was poured into the filter, the difference was immediately noticeable.

What used to be dark, dingy contaminated water was suddenly clear, lacking a foul odour.

Silva ran into his house, brought out a clear glass and filled it with the water spewing out of the filter.

He went around to each of his children to show them the difference.

His life was instantly changed. "We are just so happy to see you guys come here and thank you for the support you've shown my family," he said.

The town's pastor, Aida Felipa Diaz de Aguilar, said she too had been praying for a miracle to help the desperate situation in the village.

"I know with the water filters the sickness is going to be less," she said. "They used to boil the water but wood is very expensive. We need clean water, we have so much sickness, we are poor and we need help."

The five filters will supply the town of about 2,500 with safe water for the first time.

Dr. Allan Walker, from Edmonton, examines a young girl at a makeshift clinic in the small community of Francisco Sarabia.

While Rios and several team members were attending to the town's water woes, the rest of the Samaritan's Purse team was busy setting up a make-shift clinic which at the end of the six-day mission to southern Mexico would examine hundreds of men, women and children in three different villages.

Many of the patients were suffering from the effects of parasites which were causing major intestinal cramping and sickness.

Dr. Allan Walker an emergency medicine doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton was the lone physician on the Samaritan's Purse team.

Villagers came from miles around to visit quite possibly the only doctor they would ever have the chance to see.

Some had incurable diseases, some had aches and pains, but they all wanted to tell "Dr. Al" what ailed them.

There was a seven year-old boy with internal bleeding, another with epilepsy. Both were sent away with Tylenol and vitamins as the clinic didn't have the resources to cure them, just something to ease their pain.

A mother and her daughter cover themselves from the rain while waiting to see the Edmonton doctor, Allan Walker, during a two day clinic in the town of Lazaro Cardenas.

As the rain started to fall about 150 women with children slung over the backs with coloured blankets huddled under the troughs outside the clinic for shelter.

Some standing for hours waiting their turn with the doctor. They wouldn't leave, they couldn't leave, this may be their only chance for help.

In San Francisco Arabia, another small village in the mountains of Chiapas, hundreds of people gathered to see Dr. Walker. There just wasn't enough time in the day to see all of them. "We did what we could," Dr. Walker would later say.

The clinics were in full swing when the rest of the Canadian team ventured out into the community delivering small bags of beans and rice to peasants.

One group, lead by Calgary businessman Don McIntosh, happened upon a lot with at least four generations of a family living in a two room house.

Lily Di Gregorio of Montreal gives two bags of beans and a bag of rice to an old woman in the small community of Francisco Sarabia, in the Chiapas Region of Mexico, during the Samaritan's Purse, Operation Christmas Child (OCC) Mission Trip to Chiapas, Mexico.


The eldest member of the family , a 110 year-old man, was completely blinded with cataracts. He greeted the team warmly. Although he could not see them, the man understood the team came bearing gifts in the form of much needed food.

Beside his bed was a rope hanging from the ceiling. He used the tattered rope to pull himself up every morning. Across the room lay his 99 year old wife, struggling to breath with severe asthma.

Just a few houses down, a woman surrounded by several children skeptically came to the front gate. As McIntosh approached she realized he came with free food. In appreciation the woman, who had so little, ran back into her sod hut and came out with two eggs.

It was her only way to thank the people who had helped put extra food on the table and into the mouths of her children. "These people wanted to give gifts to us and they have so little," said Calgarian Chris Stephens. "They were giving us a part of their livelihood. It was a pretty life changing event. It seems that there's so much need and that you can touch so few people."

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Copyright © 2000, Photographer Mikael Kjellström, All rights reserved