Plumbing for a cause

FVTC students, staff participate in international challenge

Posted on Jul 14, 2017 :: Global
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

As Randy Lorge spoke about the latest global Community Plumbing Challenge, guests sat in a comfortable room in a banquet hall enjoying Fox Valley Technical College’s apprenticeship training completion ceremony.

The setting provided a stark contrast to what Lorge experienced last summer in South Africa, where the plumbing apprenticeship instructor at FVTC led a team of apprentices improving bathroom facilities in a poverty-stricken area.

At the ceremony, Lorge’s group displayed a replica of the bathroom FVTC apprentices designed in partnership with engineering students from the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Initially, it drew little reaction but mild curiosity, Lorge says.

That changed when Lorge began to show slides of the trip.

“After I spoke to them and showed them the pictures of what it was actually like, with the raw sewage running down the street and the overpopulation … that got their attention,” he says.

In July of 2016, the FVTC team traveled to Diepsloot, a shantytown north of Johannesburg. Its people live in corrugated huts with no indoor plumbing or electricity, facing massive poverty and overpopulation, Lorge says. Bathrooms consist of outhouse-like structures connected to sewer and water, and the city’s 85,000 people have access to just 700 toilets, or one toilet for every 121 people.

“It’s life-changing,” Lorge says of the experience. “Once you go to someplace and you realize all of the good things you have back home, even the bad things aren’t bad compared to what these folks have to deal with all the time.”

Prior to the trip, two plumbing apprentices, along with an office professional student and MSOE student, delved into the project on campus and devised ideas they incorporated into a working model. The existing toilets underwent little upkeep, so the team improved the design to make them last longer.

Because of overpopulation, the community also was concerned about door security, so the team designed a door that addresses that issue but still allows parents to help children get out if they get stuck. They also added taps and faucets outside the restrooms that allow more people to work simultaneously.

The project, organized by the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, isn’t a one-and-done experience. It ran like a mini apprenticeship for the citizens of Diepsloot, Lorge says, and the group leaves materials so organizations can continue the work.

“These are projects where you go in and you teach the folks there, these are the things you can do to make your life better,” Lorge says. “When you go there, and you are working, you will never see as many smiling people.”

Back at the apprenticeship year-end celebration, Lorge met Victor Masombuka and Juliet Malambe, two South African students who studied information technology at FVTC this past school year. While both come from other parts of South Africa, they know well the circumstances Lorge encountered.

Though Masombuka says South Africa is one of the most developed countries on the continent, great economic disparities beset the nation, with some who are very wealthy, a small number in the middle and many poor.

“There are what I’d describe (as) forgotten cities, forgotten places in South Africa, and those are what we’re trying to reach out for because we come from those places,” Masombuka says.

Masombuka, who lives in Siyabusa, and Malambe, of Sibasa, returned to South Africa in May and want to stay connected with the Diepsloot project and spread the word about it, along with working to address the digital divide in South Africa.

Lorge says the experience made a great impact on him, and he has difficulty coming to grips with the scale of the problem. He describes coming across a plugged sewer as the group was leaving the country. “The group, the teams, we couldn’t get that sewer unplugged fast enough,” he says. “Leaving Africa … really was hard because you didn’t even make a dent.”

Nevertheless, Lorge says the program proved a meaningful experience for the students who participated. It gives the apprentices a new appreciation for the profession and drives passion for their trade, he says, not to mention providing them a tangible example of the impact of their work: “This is what will happen if we don’t do what we do,” Lorge says.

Peter Sedlar, a plumbing apprentice who went to Diepsloot, says he chose to go on the trip to see the world and to help other people. “It was definitely eye-opening to see how some people live,” he says.

This summer, representatives from FVTC will participate in a challenge in Indonesia building a restroom facility at a school. For this project, the college will send architectural draftsmen students.