This column visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid-Shore. Perhaps unknown to many of us, these individuals have had their lives transformed by the missions of these organizations and are giving back in unique ways to better our world. Amelia Blades Steward has been a freelance writer in our community for over 15 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.
It was a chance meeting between two philanthropically-minded men that has led to a global outreach project to bring both water and eyeglasses to the residents of Tanzania. For over 10 years, Ken Wood of Denton has been drilling wells in Ghana, and, more recently also in Tanzania, through his nonprofit Lifetime Wells International. In 2006, Ken, owner of Lifetime Well Drilling Company in Denton, sold a used truck-mounted drilling rig to a church group for use in a mission project in Ghana. In Africa 15 percent of children die before the age of five, most from contaminated drinking water.
Ken was asked to travel to Ghana to provide training in operating the drilling equipment. He recalls, “I didn’t think I had the time to go. Two weeks later, I was in a financial seminar in South Carolina and the keynote speaker was from Ghana. In his speech, he talked about the long distances he had to walk to get water. I knew right then it wasn’t a coincidence I was being asked to go to Ghana. I had over 40 years of experience in well drilling and could help.”
According to Ken, Ghana has the highest rate of disease caused by contaminated water. People walk as many as six miles a day to the nearest source of water, with one town having only one water pump for 20,000 people. People would wait in line all night to get water. He adds, “I saw the devastation first hand and saw that my talents could be used to help. I know these residents are going to be healthier because of our work.”
Ken’s commitment to bringing fresh drinking water to African residents has led him to make over 44 trips to Ghana and Tanzania, drilling more than 1,700 wells and bringing clean water for the first time to over a million villagers in these countries. In recent visits, he notes seeing fewer long lines waiting for access to water.
According to Ken, it costs $2,000 a day to keep the wells going in Ghana and Tanzania. In 2016, he sent a brand new rock rig to Ghana to accommodate the rocky terrain. While contributions are coming in internationally now, more than 60 percent of the cost of the program has been borne by Ken and his well drilling company, as well as profits from his harness racing business. He comments, “While my bank account may no longer reflect it, I am a rich man for doing this rewarding work.”
A humble man, Ken has been recognized on the NBC “Today Show” and received awards from numerous organizations, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Well Drillers Association and being named to the Maryland Senior Citizen Hall of Fame. He comments, “When I consider that I can bring clean water to a person for the first time in their life at an average cost of about $5 per person, it’s a no-brainer as to how I should be spending my life. God sent us to these countries.”
The results of Ken’s work have been nothing short of amazing. One of his most poignant stories was a local village that lost 10 children to crocodiles in 2014 when the children fetched water for their families. Ken and his crew put three wells in the village so that this tragedy couldn’t happen again. Other stories include how the wells have stopped cholera outbreaks in villages.
While Ken’s work started in Ghana, he expanded to Tanzania after meeting a University of Maryland student from the country. He states, “I had an extra rig that wasn’t being used and I decided to expand our efforts.”
Ken adds that sustainability is very important to the work that he does. He has partnered with Dave Powell of Media, Pennsylvania, another well driller with the same passion for the projects in Ghana. Through Dave’s nonprofit, Wells for Relief, students from Villanova University are using GPS to record Ken’s well locations in Ghana, which will aid in their maintenance. Ken and his team are working one village at a time. In Ghana the teams have created 50 miles of underground pipes by adding water extensions to municipal lines. Solar systems donated by local businesses have also been incorporated into the water systems in some areas. Dave’s teams and the Ghana group also work on putting a mechanized system in a village every year. This can service two to three villages in an area.
Other efforts to boost the projects’ sustainability include working with local governments to improve well infrastructure and providing business and financial management education to local residents in charge of managing the water committees in each village. While the process in Ghana is more established and has a manager to oversee maintenance and new projects, Ken and his team are just getting set up in Tanzania, establishing the infrastructure required to support the wells they drill there.
Ken explains, “We have to pay for the gasoline for the motorcycles on which workers travel to each well site when providing maintenance to the wells there.”
While there have been roadblocks to his work, such as receiving shipments of equipment and tools, equipment breakdowns, and language barriers, Ken comments, “It takes a team to connect the dots with this work. Over the years, I have taken local residents Keith McMahan, Dave Whaley, Jody Cahall, Ben Wood, Jim Stark, and Brian Wood as part of our work teams, as well as Andrew, a Ghana-born Australian.
Ken adds, “We have a lot of ‘MacGyver’ stories to tell in these countries about making complicated machines out of ordinary things.”
Ken’s upcoming trip to Tanzania will include a new twist. Local Easton resident, J. Kevin White, founder of the charity Global Vision 2020 is providing 150 pairs of prescription eyeglasses for Ken to take with him, and hopes to have many more to send on an upcoming August trip to Ghana. Ken quips, “I get to be an optometrist when I am there this time.” He adds, “It is a matter of helping people. This is one simple way to add something to what we are already doing in Tanzania.”
Ken and Kevin met at an environmental day at Gunston School this year. The event showcased what people are doing to change the world. Kevin’s innovative company has created a vision kit, which consists of his USee diagnostic tool: twin progressive lenses in a frame, worn like a pair of glasses, and “dialed” up or down by an individual unit until there is comfort and clarity of the images seen on a Snellen Tumbling E eye chart. The USee system enables virtually any villager to 1) perform (refractive) vision diagnosis, and 2) snap together corrective glasses in less than 15 minutes. The cost of each pair of glasses is approximately $4, a far cry from the cost of prescription eyeglasses in our country.
Kevin explains, “The USee does not diagnose astigmatism or more complex vision issues, but we estimate that 90 percent of vision deficiencies are simply ones requiring power correction and can be resolved by the type of glasses that Global Vision 2020 provides.”
In 2005, while serving as a U.S. Marine with a Humanitarian Assistance Program in Africa and Eastern Europe, Kevin started a program that gave out about 40,000 pairs of glasses in the region. He comments, “I had worn glasses since age seven and took for granted my sight. After this first outreach in the military, I became intrigued about how we could get these glasses to more people, more economically, more efficiently, and with better quality. There are about 2.5 billion people in the developing world who need prescription eyeglasses, but who don’t have access to them today. In some of these countries there is one optometrist for one million people.”
In 2009, after retiring from the military, Kevin started Global Vision 2020 and began the process of inventing the USee diagnostic vision system, which was completed in 2013. With a modest amount of training of field personnel, the USee vision kits will make it possible to rapidly equip virtually any network. Currently, the USee system has completed clinical trials for adults at the Wilmer Eye Institute at John Hopkins Hospital and is underway for children at the New England College of Optometry.
Kevin adds, “Currently, we have partnered with the Ministry of Education of Mozambique to bring eyeglass distribution to the nation’s schools. We have most recently conducted a proof of concept distribution of 1,035 pairs of eye glasses in Moputo City, Mozambique, and are headed back later this month for a full scale project at four high schools with 1,000 pair of eyeglasses.”
Kevin believes the simplicity of the distribution of his vision kits could be a potential game changer in providing eyeglasses for people globally. The kit going to Tanzania with Ken Wood is fulfilling one more step in his plan to reach the underserved.
Ken concludes, “Humanitarian efforts like ours cross religious, political, and cultural differences and connect us to one another. We are demonstrating God’s love through our work oversees.”
To learn more about Lifetime Wells International, visit lifetimewellsinternational.org or call Ken Wood at 410-310-3510. To learn more about Global Vision 2020, visit gv2020.org or call J. Kevin White at 240-324-2020.