When Shawn Goyal learned two years ago of the desperate need for drinkable water in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, he knew he had to help.
“We were studying Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in Spanish class the fall that Hurricane Maria hit,” said Goyal, now a senior at Altamont School in Birmingham. “As I researched Puerto Rico and dug deeper, I realized how bad the need was and I wanted to do what I could for the people there.”
At the same time, Goyal was looking for a community service effort that could serve as his Eagle Scout project. That’s when he thought, “Why not make it a global project?”
Goyal decided to partner with local nonprofits that were sending disaster relief to Puerto Rico and other hard-hit areas. The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham told him of the scarcity of fresh water and linked him with Uzima, a company that manufactures inexpensive, easy-to-use water filtration systems.
The beauty of the water filters, Goyal said, is they are designed to last for 10 years, require no chemicals and can filter 5 gallons of water at a time.
“The filters are awesome for families who can’t use their tap water and don’t have enough money to buy water. They have to choose between buying water or buying other necessities like food,” Goyal said. “Because the filters last for 10 years, they also offer a long-term, affordable solution for these families, and not just a short-term fix.”
Through Uzima, Goyal was placed in touch with Ricardo Ufret, who was on the ground providing aid in Puerto Rico and could distribute the filters to those who most needed them. Uzima provided Goyal with filters at a reduced price.
During the summer of 2018, Goyal sent more than 200 letters to friends and family outlining his Eagle Scout project and requesting donations. He raised $5,000, allowing him to purchase 175 water filtration units.
“The response was very heartwarming,” said Goyal. “There are a lot of good people out there. I think all people needed was to realize what was happening and what the need was, and they were more than willing to help.”
After assembling the units, Goyal shipped them to Ufret, who, with help from members of his church in Puerto Rico, distributed water filters throughout the country. Ufret has continued sending Goyal photos and videos of people using the filters.
“Mr. Ufret told me that even two years after the hurricane, he is still receiving requests from pastors across Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti,” Goyal said. “They want the filters for long-term use. They said they haven’t had clean water for over a generation. It made me see the need is still there and inspired me to do more.”
Goyal set up a GoFundMe webpage and raised enough money to buy 60 additional filters. In mid-August, just before school started, Goyal and his mom flew to San Juan for a four-day, whirlwind trip to deliver the filters.
The afternoon of their arrival, Goyal met with two Scout troops. Speaking in Spanish, he led a workshop to teach them how to assemble the filters. Then the group, in assembly-line fashion, went to work, putting all 60 filters together in less than two hours.
The next day, Goyal and some of the Scouts headed into the streets to hand out the filters.
“Some of the people were living out of their cars or camping out in the rubble,” Goyal said. “There was trash all around and mosquitoes everywhere. It was clear that they haven’t recovered from Hurricane Maria and that there was a need for water and other necessities. It was amazing to me because just 15 minutes from there was metropolitan San Juan with all its shops, high rises and hotels. If you drive just 15 minutes, it’s completely different.”
These street sessions gave Goyal the chance once again to perfect his Spanish.
“I remember when we showed up in one community, only two or three families came out at first to get the filters. And suddenly I looked up, and there was a crowd of 30 people listening to me explain how to use them,” Goyal said. “It made me sad and disappointed in myself that I never knew that people lived in these kinds of conditions in a U.S. territory like Puerto Rico.”
Goyal said he is “amazed” that as one person he could have an impact on so many lives.
“Clean water is a problem, not just in Puerto Rico. It’s a monumental problem across the world,” Goyal said. “If you look at the problem as a whole, I never would have tried to solve it. It’s too daunting. It was only after I looked back that I could appreciate what I was able to do. Even if I can’t raise enough money to send 175 filtration systems again, I can still chip away at the problem by sending just one filter at a time if I have to.”
Goyal knows his work is far from finished. He has once again set up a GoFundMe page – this time to raise money to provide water filters to the victims of Hurricane Dorian, the Category 5 storm that left devastation across the Bahamas in early September. Anyone interested in helping Goyal meet this need can contribute by visiting his Bahamas Clean Water Relief page at https://www.gofundme.com/f/bahamas-clean-water-relief.