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Dying for water

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Ralph Douglas, right, founder of Into Africa, a spiritual and humanitarian ministry, and Ezrom Bonambi, who runs the African side of the ministry, left, show others how water was obtained in an old-style well.
APOLLO BEACH — How many times have we made the statement, “I’m just dying for water?”

Probably hundreds over our lifetimes. Or even thousands- at the beach; on a long car ride, or after an hour or so of yard work under the hot Florida sun.

Well, when homebuilder Andy Schmidt and his colleagues hear those words, they are often a cry that can mean the difference between life and death. And this group responds by providing clean water for drinking, cooking and washing clothes in parts of the world that even the poorest Americans can only try to imagine.

As part of the “Into Africa” ministry, Andy has used his talents as a volunteer to dig wells for people whose anticipated life span is only 36 years because of diseases, contaminated water, starvation, and the constant threat of internal wars.

Andy’s story begins with a friendship between his family of origin where he was one of 10 children and the family of Pastor Mark Van Deman, who, while associate pastor of a Brandon church, had nine children of his own.

“I was always hearing about ministries, and work that needed to be done,” Andy explained during a recent interview in his waterfront Apollo Beach home. “For awhile, the pastor worked for me (in his business, Schmidt Brothers Homes) and then went on to pastor a church in Indianapolis, Indiana. But we continued to communicate, and I began to hear about ministries in other parts of the world.”

One ministry especially, Into Africa, based in North Carolina, works in the Manguzi area performing a combination of spiritual and humanitarian services. Run stateside by Pastor Ralph Douglas and carried out in Africa (when Americans are not present) by Pastor Ezrom Bonambi, this ministry provides a number of things the people need whether they come to Christianity or not, although both worship and Bible study are made available.

“They provide the basic necessities first,” Andy told me. “And that’s where we come in. I know how to drill wells, and teach others to drill wells.”

By 2002, Andy was hooked and had brought several of his local friends into the action: including builders Jim McCullough and Dave Scott (of McCullough & Scott Developers of Tampa Bay); two of Pastor Van Deman’s sons, Bill and Ben, and his friend and associate Richard Lydecker. Andy’s son Gabe and daughter Summer and wife Darlene and a host of other occasional volunteers have also become involved.

“It was amazing to me to see that some of the people there walk seven or eight miles for water,” Andy told me. They carry it home in large containers on their heads. Once the wells are drilled, villagers no longer have to dip their pails into streams filled with debris, insects and bacteria.

“The mission wants to meet their spiritual needs, but they know their physical needs must be met first,” Andy explained. “I realized too that just a small group of people can move mountains.”
Dave Scott said after three days there he realized their job wasn’t just to drill wells.

“We had to teach them to dig them so after we left, they could continue.”

Once the stateside volunteers teach a group of villagers well-drilling, they can start a business there and put people to work. But the stateside volunteers work for free.

Right now they need experienced well drillers who can spare a few months time during the construction slump. Housing can be made available for them.

“Since I’ve been involved, we’ve dug 12 wells and fixed pumps and other equipment in many others,” he said.

Andy says he has traveled there nine times since 2002. The last time was in April when he was accompanied by Pastor Douglas’s son Chris who made a video about the project.

While in Rwanda, Andy’s group had the ability to work beside the REACH Rwanda, an organization that exists to serve people in their journey toward healing and reconciliation after the genocide of more than 800,000 people in 1994.

“It’s just amazing how the people who have been in jail for murders are forgiven by the families of those they’ve killed,” Andy said. “Sometimes if they get out (of prison) they build houses for and help support the victim’s families.”

REACH Rwanda is part of the national group Reach USA, which locally, may be contacted through Gerry Gardner at (941) 927-1717 or reachgardner@verizon.net.

Meanwhile, Andy’s next planned trip is in October. Since the slowdown of Florida’s construction industry, Andy says his biggest donors – the developers – have stopped helping the organization due to lack of funds.

Any donations of equipment or experienced manpower, especially well-drillers willing to donate time to fix problems in existing wells and put up some new ones in the fall would be appreciated, he said.

To reach him or to inquire further, people may call (813) 843-7474 or email him at andydigswells@gmail.com.


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