Spotlight on EWB-USA Volunteer Philip Wolstenholme

With an impressive career spanning almost four decades, Philip Wolstenholme, PE and Vice President at Brown and Caldwell, is now lending his expertise to the people of Malawi. Over the last two years, Philip’s volunteer service with EWB-USA has included fixing wells, training local technicians and restoring water to rural healthcare facilities. Having recently returned from a trip hiking across England, Philip took time to talk with us about his experience volunteering.

Philip Wolstenholme is a man of substantial character. It’s not just that he’s dedicated more than 500 hours restoring water to health facilities in rural Malawi, twice traveling there to lead WASH renovation efforts, that captures the nature of Philip’s character. Because it’s not simply that he does it. It’s how he does it.

Through his curiosity and charisma, Philip makes a lasting impression. Months after his departure from Malawi, villagers still inquire about him, asking when he’ll be back.

Developing his love of travel and culture as a child on family trips, Philip has logged visits to over 40 countries and has an easy way about him. It could be a skill he harnessed through his 38 years at Brown and Caldwell or his positive experiences on the road and working abroad, but one thing is clear: he is seriously charismatic.

Henrick Kunkeyani, the Malawi-based country director for Fresh Water International (FPI), says that’s what struck him first. “I went to pick him up at the airport and I was looking at this guy and he was clearly so very charming. That’s my first impression.”  

Restoring Water Systems to Rural Health Centers

In the spring of 2017, EWB-USA began a partnership with the Malawi-focused NGO Freshwater Project International to assess and repair water systems at six rural health centers that collectively serve 210,000 community members.

For those living in rural areas, these health centers are frequently the first point of care. A lack of clean water onsite has profound implications — including the spread of infections in the very place where patients are seeking care.

“The health consequences of poor water, sanitation and hygiene services are enormous,” said Margaret Chan, former director general of the World Health Organization. “I can think of no other environmental determinant that causes such profound, debilitating, and dehumanizing misery,” she said.

According to Kevin Andrezejewski, EWB-USA’s Engineering Service Corps Senior Project Manager, this assignment required a very special kind of person. It needed someone who could not only observe but teach, mentor, motivate, understand cultural norms, and get their hands dirty.

Kevin Meets Philip

Kevin met Philip by phone and was immediately impressed. “Philip is an interesting guy. He has the water and sanitation background, and is eager to use his skills where they’re needed most,” he says. But, what struck Kevin most was Philip’s excitement: “He really embraced the cultural aspect of the project. He had never been to Malawi. Leading up to his trip, he would call me quite often and tell me about all of these unique things he was learning about local traditions. Understanding local cultures and appropriate design really sets projects up for success.”

Restoring the water systems and training technicians to maintain and repair the water pumps and solar panels used to power the pumps would mean improved health outcomes for the thousands of people who depend on these facilities. There was a lot riding on the trip, and Kevin felt confident about Philip’s ability to excel on this assignment.

Teamwork and Results

Henrick (left) and Philip discuss the project with a local healthcare practitioner.

If the skill of reading a room is transferable to the field, Phillip has it. 

Soccer has played a huge role in Philip’s life. Born in Manchester, England, in a hospital with a view of Old Trafford football stadium, Philip is a reformed football fanatic and a dedicated player with more than fifty years of play behind him. Knowing the Malawi project team enthusiastically followed football, Philip would pull out yellow and even red cards at project sites. Henrick recalls Philip holding a briefing meeting and issuing several yellow cards to the delight of the team.

Kevin says, “Watching Philip in the field, you would have thought that he’d done humanitarian engineering his entire life. Not only was he an exemplary on-the-ground thinker, he was just so comfortable in a new culture. He had the mindset: you don’t get flustered, you don’t show disrespect, you just find a solution.”

Philip brings people together and encourages them to push on and accomplish more than they thought possible. “He did more in the two-week period he spent in-country than we could have ever expected,” said Kevin. “He went to one of the sites thinking he was going to make some observations and recommendations, but the next thing you know they’re pulling out pipes, digging trenches and plumbing a new water system. With his help, they got water running to facilities that we didn’t plan on getting to that quickly. And these facilities see 400-500 people a day, so within a matter of hours they had a water source that they didn’t have before. That’s impressive.”

It’s this ability that resonates with Henrick the most. He says that the most important thing he’s learned from Philip is that when you create strong relationships you are able to achieve goals much easier.

“My favorite memories are those moments when you actually get the water flowing. These facilities have been without water for several years. After we’ve fixed the pipes, the pumps, and the tanks and water finally comes out, people are so excited and appreciative.” -Philip Wolstenholme

Advice for Young Engineers

Philip began his second career volunteering with EWB-USA at age 67. Philip’s advice to young engineers is to get broad experience, travel when you can and try not to specialize too early in your career. “Have fun with whatever you do while always keeping your sense of humor and your integrity and ethics intact,” he says.

It sounds like Philip is following his own good advice.

Philip Wolstenholme is one of our many accomplished volunteers serving EWB-USA’s Engineering Service Corps program with the support of Brown and Caldwell. To learn more about the wide array of opportunities available and how your engineering skills can contribute to building a better world, visit www.ewb-usa.org/volunteer.

About the Author
Engineers Without Borders USA builds a better world through engineering projects that empower communities to meet their basic human needs and equip leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.