The Village Empowerment Program was started in 1997 at the request of a handful of undergraduate students at U Mass Lowell to do international service work. The chaplain at the time (Fr. Paul Soper) went with them to villages in Peru, where he had spent some time as a younger priest. The group returned with the request from villagers for lights and communication in their remote medical clinics. The solar engineering program was approached for assistance. At the request of several solar engineering graduate students, Prof. John Duffy went with another group in the summer of 1998 for two weeks to install photovoltaic systems in two clinics to power lights and transceiver radios as well as a radio in the base hospital on the coast. The trips have continued twice a year ever since. A total of 170 students, faculty, and volunteers have ventured to the Andes of Peru, each going an average of twice (or 340 student-trips). Over 100 systems have been designed and installed in 61 villages (including 50 radios) addressing basic needs of medical care, water supply and water purification, food production, communication, housing, heating, and transportation. In 2007 the VE program incorporated similar projects in partnership with the Tohono O’odham tribal college in AZ.
With this infrastructure developed, the focus of S-L projects has shifted to starting microenterprises such as aquaculture, solar and wind powered drip irrigation, biodigesters, and manufacturing of solar water purification bottles coated with a photo catalyst with a dye indicator. The program has transformed the lives not only of many of the villagers but also of the students: some of the students have changed their life-long profession as a result. Many medical personnel have repeatedly reported that the implemented systems have helped to save many lives. The Village Empowerment Program has been recognized with awards including the University of Massachusetts President’s Award for Service in December 2006, a finalist for the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter award in 2007, and Boston Celtics Heroes Among US award in 2007.
Unmet basic human needs and poverty in the world abound: More than 1.2 billion people in the world do not have access to clean water (World Health Organization (WHO) 2008). According to the United Nations, every year 1.8 million people die due to diarrhea and 88% of these deaths are related to the ingestion of contaminated water, lack of sanitation and bad hygiene practices (United Nations Development Program (UNDP) 2006). One-fourth of the world is without grid electricity (International Energy Agency (IEA) 2006). One-half lives on less than $2 a day (World Bank 2004; Central Intelligence Agency 2008) and one-sixth lives on less than $1 a day and is barely surviving (Sachs 2005; World Bank 2004.) The bottom 40% of the world’s population possesses 0.6% of total global household wealth, while the top 1% controls 40% of the world’s household wealth, (using official exchange rates as the basis of comparison).
The effect of these statistics may generate concern and a desire to help the world’s poor, but the magnitude of the problem can also be overwhelming. However, students can respond to this concern and are able to work together to make a real difference among the poor, especially if they join a program which is ongoing and focused in a particular area of a developing country. Year after year, concerned students make a real contribution by carrying out service-learning projects in the same network of villages, and they also partner with students from different disciplines and academic institutions. Such is the evolving model of Village Empowerment: founded on a commitment to a sustainable partnership among students, faculty, and professional volunteers from multiple disciplines and institutions and Quechua villagers in an Andean region of Peru and more recently with the Tohono O’odham nation in Arizona.