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Learning to SWIM: Local church aids nonprofit in clean water efforts

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SWIM Treasurer Lorn Heyne inspects a chlorine producing unit volunteers at Good News Community Church in Okoboji assembled Saturday morning. The units are distributed to remote populations abroad to help provide safe drinking water. (Photo by Seth Boyes)
Seth Boyes - News Editor


There are many ways to purify water — sunlight, osmosis, filtration — but when it comes to more remote areas of the world, Earl Ratcliff suggests salt, or rather the chlorine it contains.

Ratcliff is the board chairman of Safe Water International Ministries — or SWIM — an Iowa nonprofit which creates devices to produce a chlorine solution useful when purifying water abroad. The nonprofit hosts community events in which the public can help assemble the devices, which are then sent to other countries as part of a Christian ministry effort.

One such build took place Saturday, at Good News Church in Okoboji. Volunteers pieced together 50 units, which organizers said could help provide clean water for about 50,000 people. Bill Ebersole, chair of the church's missions committee, said the weekend build had been in the works for about two months, following a demonstration from SWIM Board Member and Good News attendee John Battern.

"Based on John's presentation that he did and the ministry he had, it really sparked the church's interest," Ebersole said. "So it was easy on our part to say, 'We want to support this SWIM build, and what would it take to build 50 units here?'"

A men's prayer breakfast fundraiser contributed $1,250 to the cause, and Ebersole said the missions committee voted to contribute another $1,250 to double the total. Around 35 volunteers attended Saturday's build, some from the church and others from community groups like the local Christian motorcycle group. The volunteers split into two shifts and each spent about an hour and a half assembling the devices.

"It is kind of fun, and when you start talking about what this helps support, it's just tremendous," Ebersole said.


The first drop


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Clips were soldered to wires at four stations in the church before assembly of the units began. (Photo by Seth Boyes)


SWIM was founded by Greg Stout of New Sharon after Stout had travelled to Nicaragua in 2001.

Ratcliff explained that Stout helped dig a water line out of the hills and into a local community there but, when he proposed a celebratory drink of water to top off the project, the locals told him the water wasn't safe for him to drink.

Ratcliff noted water is a critical factor for all people, but especially so for remote populations across the world. He said in some areas of Africa, an estimated six out of 10 children will die of preventable waterborne diseases before the age of 10. And while some groups try to address the issue by providing chlorine tablets or liquid additives to purify the water, Ratcliff pointed out the problem persists once the locals exhaust the supply.

He said, rather than simply supply those in need with chlorine — which he said has been used to purify water in the U.S. since the early 1900s — Stout sought out a classmate to help develop a method of producing chlorine from a nearly universal resource — salt.

"Table salt is common around the world, so people can produce chlorine every day if they want," Ratcliff said. "If they have tablets, the tablets run out. If they have liquid, the liquid runs out. But if they have salt, they can make their own continually."

SWIM's first chlorine producing unit — which its members now refer to as CPUs — was actually a hefty wooden box with repurposed treadmill components and operated by hand, according to Ratcliff. The design became increasingly compact in the years ahead, and the volunteers at Good News assembled the sixth version of the units.

The latest models are made of lightweight plastic and use a 12-volt battery to run current through a pair of titanium electrodes and generate chlorine from a saltwater mixture. About 10 drops of the resulting solution can kill the bacteria in a liter of water over the course of about an hour.

The batteries can be charged through a solar panel, and the unit itself can even use a vehicle battery for power if need be. Ratcliff said SWIM teams actually buy the batteries and solar panels in-country when distributing the units. He said it not only saves on transport costs but also supports the local economies.


A hands-on process


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Earl Ratcliff, board chairman of SWIM, demonstrated how to connect the units' wires to its other components. (Photo by Seth Boyes)


As the unit's design was simplified, so was the assembly process.

Ratcliff said, where once it took more than an hour and $150 in materials to create a single unit, the latest models can be put together in around 10 minutes using about $20 of materials.

Volunteers at Good News took positions at one of three tables Saturday. Some stripped wire. Some soldered leads in an adjacent room.  And some fitted the final pieces together. Epoxy would be added after the build to protect some of the components — SWIM Treasurer Lorn Heyne explained it can take several hours for the epoxy to set — and the units are checked to be sure they work properly.

Ratcliff said the nonprofit's mission often becomes tangible for volunteers as they assemble the units, knowing how they will be used.

"People will give money, but man, they just love being a hands-on part of this," Ratcliff said.

In fact, he said it's not uncommon for volunteers to express interested in helping distribute the units — the pattern held true during Saturday morning's build.

To date, SWIM has distributed the devices in more than 30 countries. Ratcliff said a large portion of their current work is focused in areas of Nepal and India, but SWIM also partners with organizations in countries like Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Liberia and Guinea. He said local contacts — often ministers and pastors — talk with local health officials about the devices and receive permission to interact with the community more broadly.

"That alone gives the pastor permission to speak about the gospel," Ratcliff said. "We've had many churches that have started from that very thing. They now have a reason to gather together."

Ebersole said the church's missions committee has been energized by SWIM's ministry and the hands-on participation the build provided to the local community. He said the church team hopes to build on that momentum in other areas of its mission work.

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