Saturday, July 13, 2024

Whitefish woman helps provide clean water in Africa

Daily Inter Lake | October 11, 2021 1:00 AM

Whitefish’s Heidi Rickels has never been to Malawi, but she has been helping people in the small southeastern African country gain access to clean water for a decade.

Since 2011, Rickels and her Freshwater Project International have been helping Malawi’s villages, schools and health care facilities fight waterborne diseases by drilling and maintaining wells, as well as installing entire water systems.

After graduating from the University of Kansas with a business degree, Rickels found herself feeling unfulfilled working in marketing.

“It was good work, but it wasn't exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “I did some work with nonprofits while working with an accounting firm and made the decision that I wanted to be more involved with those kinds of organizations, especially at the international level.”

After returning to school at University of Denver's Graduate School of International Studies, Rickels took a position with Project Cure, a large nonprofit organization that delivers medical supplies and equipment to developing countries around the world.

It was during her work with Project Cure that Rickels found her niche.

“I just really fell in love with telling people’s stories, especially the people who are being impacted by the issues we were dealing with,” she said. “I enjoyed letting people know what a huge impact can be made by even the smallest level of involvement.”

IT WAS also during this time that Rickels met Charles Banda in 2004, a native of Malawi who had come to Denver as part of a four-month fellowship to learn marketing.

As Rickels passed on her knowledge, Banda told her about the water problems being faced in his home country and how 70% of the people in Malawi’s health care facilities were there because of preventable waterborne diseases and water-related diseases.

The two remained friends after Banda returned to Malawi, with Rickels and her family helping to sponsor a water well there.

Rickels was at home with her young son in 2009 when Banda told Rickels he was headed back to the U.S. to help promote Amy Hart’s documentary “Water First,” which featured Banda’s work in Malawi.

Looking to take on a new project, Rickels worked with Hart to help organize a nine-city screen tour, culminating with a presentation at the American Public Health Association Conference in Philadelphia.

Continuing with the cause, Rickels helped found Freshwater Project International in 2011 to help raise funds for Banda’s Freshwater Project Malawi.

BOTH ORGANIZATIONS were rocked by Banda’s sudden death of cancer in 2013 and Freshwater Project International was set up as its own non-governmental organization in Malawi, where it would battle the clean water problem first hand.

Progress was small at first, with funds going toward the repair and maintenance of water wells, but the organization was soon contracting with local workers to help drill new wells in several villages.

After raising money to purchase its own drilling equipment, the organization began working with Proctor and Gamble and their Children’s Clean Drinking Water Initiative to help bring even more water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects to Malawi’s schools.

The work continued to expand and Freshwater Project International entered a new partnership with Engineers Without Borders to help install new water systems in Malawi’s healthcare facilities. Their pilot project installed wells, holding tanks and solar powered pumps in eight facilities over the past two years with plans for systems in 23 additional facilities in the city of Zomba in the next five to seven years.

WHILE RICKELS has not yet been able to make the trip to Malawi to see the fruits of her labors, she has been able to send a number of interns and staff members while she continues to visit schools and organizations in the U.S. to help raise awareness for her cause.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be able to interact with interns that have been able to travel to Malawi for me. In the past I was unable to visit because I had young children and, just when I thought I would finally be able to make the trip, then Covid hit,” she said. “Luckily, most of my work can be done from anywhere. I even once did a presentation for a major conference from my car while watching my kid’s soccer game. I try to find any way that I can connect people and broaden their world view. I want people to see that they can have an impact on the well being of people all the way across the world.”

Rickels brought that passion for Malawi with her when she and her husband Steve, along with their children Aiden and Ashley made the move from Colorado to Whitefish last year.

She hopes to continue her education efforts in the Flathead Valley and beyond.

“I know that it is easy to get caught up in your own world and what you are experiencing every day and the challenges you are facing. All of that is put in a different perspective when you walk in the shoes of others and see their needs,” she said. “Can’t we all just come together to deal with bigger problems like making sure everyone has access to clean water?”

Reporter Jeremy Weber may be reached at 406-758-4446 or