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Friendship students dig water relief ministry

Matt Masters • Jul 5, 2018 at 6:17 PM

Friendship Christian School science teacher Greg Armstrong teaches his students to dig, install and maintain wells for disadvantaged communities around the world.

Armstrong, who has taught at Friendship for 15 years, has led students to build 47 wells across Kenya and Uganda, 17 wells across Honduras and Nicaragua, and 16 wells closer to home in Sneedville in Hancock County.

The water ministry allows eight to 10 students per year accompany Armstrong and other teachers and parents on international trips two to three times a year and 60-80 students on water relief trips to East Tennessee each year.

“The Rotary Club was willing to partner with us and sponsor a well-repair training center right here at Friendship Christian,” said Armstrong. “So it’s really exciting for us to have a hands-on well that kids can come out – and even kids that aren’t going on the trip. There’s just so many principles that we can use as this is a hands-on, project-based learning for really our entire school, K-12.

“That’s been a beautiful part of the learning process. Students come out and they don’t ask, ‘Why do I need to know this?’ They know why they need to know the science and the math and the geometry and the physics behind a pump. It’s so that they can go and provide water for someone who doesn’t have water.

“We got interested in well repairs right after the big earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and I took some students a few years ago to get trained on how to repair wells. We took a couple of trips down to Haiti to do that project, and it never really completely took off.”

After the lessons learned in Haiti, Armstrong and his students began to learn about the water needs in Uganda and eventually used their prior knowledge and experience to repair a well in a leper colony. That success allowed the water ministry to tackle challenges in other communities to build more wells and educate more people on how to maintain and sustain wells.

According to Armstrong, many pump wells in Uganda will service between 1,000-5,000 people, which results in wear and tear on the pumps. Armstrong tells stories of the struggles of the people he has met while on this journey, stories of villages with broken wells that have forced villagers to go to nearby swamps to gather water that is often contaminated.

Those treks are dangerous, as women and children are often the ones who gather water on a daily basis and face the possibility of assault, rape and kidnapping. Even if the water is brought back safely, the elderly risk death as a result of the contaminated water and their weakened immune systems.

“It truly is life changing – kids once again can go to school, because it’s often the children’s responsibility to walk the three miles total to get water, education is secondary to water. When you provide water and it’s more centrally located for that community, the children can go to school, and it’s really empowering,” said Armstrong.

While fresh clean water is the ultimate goal of the wells, Armstrong hopes he and his students can serve as a source of communal bonding.

“We try to present to the communities that this water represents the living water of Jesus, and we use that as a means of peace. So if there is any conflict, and especially if there is any conflict between Christians and Muslims, we try to bring Christians and Muslims together at the well, and we talk about how we want this water to be a symbol of peace,” said Armstrong. “So we never repair a well where someone is restricted – that water is always free to everyone. So that’s a beautiful opportunity to use water as a promotion of peace in these communities.”

While Armstrong will continue to teach his students and take them around the world to help those in need, the goal is to equip the local population with the knowledge and experience to help themselves.

“We’re hoping to train local pastors and local individuals to be the ones to go out and repair the wells. That’s our vision,” Armstrong said. “And then we’d like to take that model and move out into other areas and kind of concentrate in that areas for a couple of years and hopefully train that group of individuals to be self-sufficient.”

Gwynn Lanius, former president of the Lebanon Noon Rotary Club, donated funds to the project, along with an official financial donation by the Rotary Club.

“It’s an ongoing project from Greg Armstrong, who is just an exceptional person, but it’s also an educational experience for these students. It’s just very pleasing to see,” said Lanius.

“It’s been a community-wide effort. These projects aren’t cheap. It’s not funding that I could do; it’s not funding that we could do here at the school,” Armstrong said. “The Rotary Club, the contributions from Perry Ingram at Jackson Enterprises to drill the well, of Lee Pettross at Lebanon Distributing and Lewis Burris helped with a lot of the concrete. I’m sure I’m leaving some people out but there are really so many contributors to this project.”

Although Armstrong and his students have made great strides through the water ministry, he isn’t satisfied with just continuing the work himself. He sees the wells at Friendship Christian as a tool for others to help communities around the world.

“The beauty of this particular well here is it’s the same well that you’re going to find in Asia, in India and Africa,” said Armstrong. “I love empowering other people, and I don’t think that any of us should take ownership of ministry, generosity or charity. We want to share that and equip as many people as possible.”

“It helps us to emphasize what our mission here at Friendship Christian School is that we get an education, we’re blessed with knowledge and resources not just so we can better our own lives but so that we can use that to help other people”

The most common pump that the water ministry builds is a variation of the India Mark II borehole pump, which was originally designed in the 1970s. The pump stands about 3 feet high with a metal pump handle and concrete base, bringing water up from about 100 feet below.

Friendship Christian School also houses a simulation of a hand-dug well, which is common around the world but basic, often drying during the dry seasons. Armstrong and his students have modified this well with PVC pipes to pump water, replacing what would be a bucket on a pulley system.

One way Armstrong teaches his students is to have them take the lead to improve and design new and better ways to pump water from the wells.

“My challenge to each year’s students is to find a way to make it cheaper and to use only materials that you can buy in a developing country,” said Armstrong. “This past year, I was really excited because our salutatorian Caleb Ross made a breakthrough in the pump, where the only part we have to bring from the U.S. is a marble, which is used in the plunger at the bottom of the pump.”

The water ministry’s efforts are not just focused on foreign lands with annual trips to East Tennessee as a reminder the water crisis affects Tennesseans, as well.

“We actually got involved in Appalachia, with the majority of our time and quite a bit of our resources are spent doing water sterilization systems in Hancock County, it’s one of the poorest counties in Tennessee,” Armstrong said. “We go there once a month. People are kind of surprised to hear that there’s children still drinking from contaminated wells and creeks here in our own state, so that’s a big part of our ministry.”

Armstrong encouraged anyone who would like to contribute to the water ministry’s cause to come to Friendship Christian School and learn how to help those in need by starting with the basics of life – water, community and compassion.

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