Posted by: calloftheandes | May 19, 2011

Church Work Team Drills First Water Wells in Remote Panamanian Islands

by Miriam Gebb and Harold Goerzen
Photos by Winn Madsen

For years the Guaymí people, living on a string of remote islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast, have put up with an unreliable, sometimes dangerous water supply. Most of the year they collect rainwater from their roofs, but during the three-month dry season they resort to drinking filthy, brackish water that they find by digging into the dark, spongy soil.

“One of the major hurdles [for residents] is finding fresh water to drink, bathe and wash clothes,” said Miriam Gebb, an HCJB Global Hands community development nurse based in Ecuador. She joined a church work team from Washington state that visited Panama for 12 days in late March and early April. “We soon found out firsthand what it was like to have to ration fresh water and only take 35-second showers!”

But all that could change because the team—coordinated by Dr. Ron Guderian, a former HCJB Global clinical pathologist, and organized by his son-in-law, Aleph Fackenthall—showed how drilling clean water wells could be the solution to their water problems.

“We never thought about drilling wells there before because the islands are so shallow,” said Guderian who has led annual work teams to Panama for the last eight years. “Then we read about this organization from North Carolina that would drill for water on coral islands. We called them up, and they agreed to help us.”

Using simple well-drilling equipment from the U.S., team members located areas that were at least 40 feet above sea level. Using only manual labor, they drilled down about 20 feet through the dirt and sand before hitting solid rock—and fresh, potable water.

“At first the local people didn’t believe it,” Guderian said. “They suddenly realized that they didn’t have to use the brackish water!” During their visit, the 22-member team drilled five wells on community leaders’ land, leaving behind drilling tools and cash to buy supplies to drill another five. At least two of these have already been drilled.

The team also helped with rainwater catchment systems, mobile medical clinics and programs for the schoolchildren consisting of dramas, puppet shows and handcrafts that told the story of Christ’s love and forgiveness. They also replaced the roof on a multi-use building that doubles as a church and a clinic.

“Another major hurdle [for the islanders] is getting better access to healthcare,” Gebb added. “Doctors and hospitals on the mainland are often inaccessible because of the rough seas and lack of gasoline for outboard motors. Many don’t have the money to pay for the trip, much less for needed medicines.”

Patient examined on a boat by Dr. Guderian as Miriam Gebb (left) and Winn Madsen assist.

Together with retired Air Force nurse Winn Madsen of Nine Mile Falls Community Church near Spokane, Wash., Guderian and Gebb did screening for dental, visual and general medical problems, referring patients for further healthcare. Meanwhile, a national pastor, Felix Valencia, who comes from a remote jungle area of Ecuador, joined the team for the first time.

“When we enter a community, we usually set up our space first and then the other team members make their area,” Madsen explained. “It was amazing how everyone worked together as one. In one area we tried to have many operations going on at once to help that community.

“Usually while a well was being dug, some were praying and our pastor led some Bible studies for the people while the children’s ministry was being done with puppets, drama, music and more. It was a very full 12 days!”

Guderian said having a pastor on the team had additional benefits. “With the help of the local pastor, we were able to communicate much better the reason we come and serve—to show the love of Jesus Christ,” he said. “Also, one of our boat drivers and translators turned out to be a local pastor who became an integral part of our ministry thorough the week and we expect him to be part of our outreach in the future.”

Gebb related that while there were many opportunities for health teaching on an individual and family level, it was “difficult to get participation in a larger group. There is much that could be done to prevent common diseases and more complicated problems like diabetes and high blood pressure. The local foods available are very starchy, making diet control for diabetes very difficult.”

Guderian, whose “day job” is managing a mobile dental unit for Medical Teams International, said he was encouraged with both the growth and maturation of local churches in the past eight years.

“At the end of our trip, the local Christian leaders challenged us, saying there are distant villages on other islands where the people are even poorer and have never received any help,” he said. “They told us, ‘That’s where you need to go next.’”


  1. […] leaving Ecuador in 1999 and moving to Washington state, Guderian has served with Medical Teams International and acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Health in Ecuador for the National Program of […]

  2. sorry my email =

  3. Please Is Possible find an email contact of Dr Ron Guderian , I’m biologist and I want to ask dr Guderian about his extensive works in Electric-Shock First Aids in Snake Venom Attacks in Humans, thanks a lot in advance . God Bless for Yours Amazing Missionary Unpriced Work 🙂 .
    Michel Ameruoso / 2012.jul.04 – 15:38

  4. It is exciting to hear about the Ecuadorian church sending missionaries to Panama!

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