A Conversation With Volunteer and Corporate Champion Heidi Lemieux

Heidi Lemieux wears a lot of hats. She’s a senior engineer with Sanborn, Head & Associates Inc., co-founder of Engineers Without Borders USA’s (EWB-USA) New Hampshire Professional Chapter, and  since 2016 she’s been leading a major EWB-USA water project. She recently returned from Uganda with six members of EWB-USA’s New Hampshire chapter.

During the trip, EWB-USA collaborated with a local NGO, Busoga Volunteers for Community Development, to install three of nine wells slated to deliver clean water to the 9,000 people living in the remote farming villages within the Buyende District of Uganda. The project team also provided education and training essential for the long-term health of the community and functioning of the wells.

This was Lemieux’s second visit to the country.

Photo Credit: Heather Ballestero

Welcome back. Tell us about your trip!

My trip to Uganda was AMAZING! There are few words truly capable of expressing just how incredible it was to be a part of a trip as life-changing as this one was. The people I met are some of the best people I have ever known, and to be a part of their lives is something I will forever be grateful for.

What was the community need your project addressed?

The main focus of our project in Uganda is water supply. The parish suffered in terms of water quality and quantity. Waterborne diseases such as typhoid and bilharzia were persistent from drinking contaminated water out of shallow, hand-dug trenches. These water sources are  located more than a mile away from village centers and often go dry during the dry seasons.

The effects of the poor water quality on the children were evident; many had distended stomachs and appeared to have low energy. During our meetings in the village centers, mothers would often have to leave to tend to sick kids with diarrhea or that were crying from discomfort.

What did you and the team accomplish on this trip?

The focus of this trip was to install three bedrock water supply wells in three villages. The wells were installed using an air rotary drill rig so as to hit the clean bedrock fractures and avoid potentially impacted groundwater located closer to the ground surface.

I understand that the days the wells were drilled and produced water were highly emotional. Can you share a few impressions?

The moment the drillers hit water and the villagers were able to visibly see the water coming out of the ground was one I will never forget. Imagine being someone who has had to travel miles to access a limited source of dirty water, and then you realize there’s an abundance of this treasured resource under your feet. It was emotional to see the relief wash over these people. I remember hearing the singing and seeing the dancing and just thinking, “We did it!”

How has daily life in these communities changed since the wells went in?

The impact has been enormous.

These communities have never had access to clean water before. Now they are able to get water from pumps. Not only do they now have more time in their days to go to school and work since they don’t have to travel as far, they also have a chance at a better quality of life.

You co-founded the EWB-USA New Hampshire Professional Chapter. What inspired you to do this?

When I was 15, I traveled to Nicaragua to teach basic hygiene to impoverished communities through an organization called Working for One World. It was on this trip that I was first exposed to the difficult conditions that so many people live in.

This trip motivated me to want to be a part of something where I felt I could really give back. When I went to school for environmental engineering, I was first introduced to EWB-USA through the EWB-USA Clarkson University Chapter. My studies and other extracurriculars kept me too busy to get really involved, but when I graduated and began my career in a new state I realized I wanted to finally give back in my free time. I knew there wasn’t a professional EWB-USA chapter in New Hampshire, so I thought there might be others like me out there who were looking to get involved. I’m still amazed with how well it worked out and truly grateful for the amazing people in the chapter who have helped it grow into what we have become.

How has being involved with EWB-USA changed you personally?

I can easily say EWB-USA has changed my life without feeling like I’m being cliché. To see the things you see in places like Uganda — things like children grateful for a bunch of rags they’ve converted into a quasi-soccer ball, or women slaughtering the few chickens they have in the village because they want you, their guests of honor, to feel welcome. It’s impossible not to be moved.

You’re a joint EWB-USA and ASCE member. How do memberships in professional organizations benefit you as a woman engineer?

Woman engineers can do amazing things! We are slowly showing the world what we can do one amazing project at a time. These organizations have helped me gain so much confidence in my own abilities and hopefully been an example of what a woman engineer can do.

How has being involved in EWB-USA affected the work you do at Sanborn Head? Are there skills, values or approaches that you are able to apply from your work in the U.S. to that in Uganda?

I am fortunate to work for a company that is extremely supportive of all of my efforts with EWB-USA, and many of my coworkers have actually gotten involved with the chapter and become active members in the project. My company has also become a corporate partner of EWB-USA since the EWB-USA New Hampshire Chapter was founded.

My involvement with EWB-USA has also helped me personally grow my leadership skills; as the chapter president I often run meetings, attend several networking events to broaden the reach of our chapter, and present to other engineering organizations in the state. Through my involvement, I have been able to grow my network and find myself able to take on more responsibility and maintain stronger client relationships in my day-to-day work. Additionally, the technical skills I have learned at Sanborn Head have prepared me for dealing with contractors and the technical requirements that come with designing and implementing a well.

What’s next for you and your project?

Although we are very proud of the success of our most recent trip, there is still much work to do! Our goal is to head back to Uganda in early 2019 to evaluate the condition of the three wells installed in January, as well as to implement the next round of supply wells. We will also continue to evaluate ways to enhance existing systems and reduce the amount of time individuals have to spend collecting water (e.g., installing electric pumps and distribution systems to reduce queues at the pumps). We are currently working on organizing a fundraiser this summer to help pay for additional water supply wells.