Julia Perot stared at her computer screen, her mind running in overdrive as accounts of the devastation from the 2010 Haitian earthquake flashed across CNN's homepage.
Perot, a senior mechanical engineering major, is a unique news consumer in that these stories, combined with her skill set and her personal faith, prompted her to take action.
Joined by her twin sister Laura, a senior computer science major, Aaron Boucher, a junior health and human services major, Arthur Adams, a 2010 UB alumnus, her father, and her pastor, she will spend the first week of June in Port-au-Prince serving an orphanage in the still-struggling city.
The main goal of the project will be to repair the water tower at the orphanage, which the approximately 100 residents and missionaries have no choice but to bathe in and drink from – at the risk of infection. In order to avoid parasites, none of the volunteers will be able to shower during their time in Haiti, but they are committed to making the water safe for those who will come after them.
These repairs will be based on Julia's senior engineering design project that she completed with the help of Adams, Joseph C. Mollendorf, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and James N. Jensen, a professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering.
Besides ensuring that the tower can serve everyone at the orphanage, Julia's goal is for the tower to run without any outside inputs of disinfection chemicals or fuels to power it.
"The system I have designed uses a UV sensor to measure the amount of UV radiation reaching the water in the disinfection basin at any given time," Julia said. "A small controller is programmed to know when the water has received a high enough dose, and it tells the water to drain into the water tower and the disinfection basin refills."
The team will not only focus on making structural improvements; they will also interact with the children at the orphanage and its adjoining school.
"[I'm excited about] meeting the children, hearing what they have to say, just being able to see the way people are changing and seeing [how] people's attitudes are changing," Laura said.
This trip also serves a faith-based purpose for the team, made up of all Christian members – most of whom first connected through UB's InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
"If it weren't for my faith, I wouldn't be going," Laura said. "One of the things I was excited about with this trip was to [show people] the way God's working [in Haiti]. I have no money, I have not a lot to give here, but I know that it's worth the trip. I know that God is going to use me there. I've spent a lot of time in prayer making sure this is what we should do."
This is not the first time the twins traveled abroad for a mission trip. In 2007, while they were still in high school, they worked in the Dominican Republic with a group from their church.
They encountered many Haitian refugees during their time in the Dominican Republic, and even three years before the earthquake hit, they knew that this was a population they wanted to reach.
"It was before everything was as bad as it is now, and people were trying to find a better life in a country where nobody wanted them there anyway," Laura said. "And I just developed a huge heart for reaching the people of Haiti."
This trip is different, though. Laura believes her faith is stronger now, and all of the members now come equipped with specialized skills they gained in their respective majors.
"It's kind of cool because we're still young enough to go around the world on these adventures, but we have all the skills we need," Laura said. "It's hard for me to process still."
As soon as the twins realized that it was possible to make this trip to Haiti, they jumped at the opportunity. But the details did not simply fall into place for them. Timing was the first setback.
"We were originally going to go this past January. Because of school pressure, we just did not have enough time to get everything together by then," Julia said. "In hindsight, I'm very glad we didn't go then because the political climate was so uncertain at the time. Now Haiti finally has an elected president, so I'm praying that things will be calm and safe when we go."
Naturally, the other concern is a financial one. Although the group held a fundraiser at Buffalo Wild Wings last week, and considers holding another next week, they still have much more money to raise.
Julia fears that the team's efforts at the orphanage will not work out as seamlessly as expected.
"It is very hard to design something for a place I have never been before," Julia said. "I am the most nervous that we will not actually be able to fix the water tower or that my disinfection system will not be able to be set up how we want it because something is different than how I expected."
Despite these setbacks and concerns, the twins have their work set out for them, and they approach the task with a combination of understanding, confidence, and passion.
However, they know that these kind of trips are not accessible – not to mention affordable – for many college students.
"Not everyone can do a trip like this," Laura said. "Not everyone who wants to serve God can do a trip like this. But it's not a small thing to donate some money and donate some time, even if it's helping Buffalo…. You're participating in the bigger picture and each little bit helps such a great cause."
Both Julia and Laura expect to leave Haiti with a completely renewed mindset. Julia hopes to gain some insight about where her future is headed.
Although Laura knows the facts about the impoverished and unsanitary conditions in the country, she expects to be struck by it when she arrives there.
"It's going to be eye-opening for sure," Laura said. "It's the capital of a country and they still have an orphanage without clean water right next to the airport. If it was Washington, D.C., that would never happen. It's just the idea that this is the best the country has to offer and it's so broken."
Full disclosure: Amanda Woods is a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.