Posted on Sat, May. 02, 2009

Group thrives on delivering clean water


Both men were marked by a little village a world away from their cosmopolitanMiami roots but that touched their hearts in ways that changed them forever.  Albert Perez was a Christopher Columbus High School student and Alfred Consuegra attended Belen Jesuit Prep. They were just 16-year-old Catholic boys when they set out on their adventure.  Born of Cuban parents, Perez and Consuegra were part of a Jesuit mission to help build an aqueduct in a village in the mountainous central region of the Dominican Republic. They expected to have fun, maybe meet some girls and get away from the prying eyes of Mami y Papi.  They didn’t expect to return with a lifelong commitment to help the most humble create their own dreams and become leaders in their own right. But that’s what happened. In college, Perez and Consuegra decided to start LIFO — Living Instruments for Others.

There are manySouth Floridagroups that go to poor parts of the world to help. But LIFO stands out for its simplicity. It has no overhead and a diverse group of volunteers, delivering tangible results year after year: clean, fresh water.  ”I guess we had a calling,”Perez told me recently after scouting the Belen auditorium where LIFO plans to pack the house with 600 people for its annual fundraiser at 7 p.m. Friday (Check out or call 305-860-9611). At $30 a person, the effort will raise enough to buy miles of PVC pipe and materials to build the group’s 25th aqueduct.  Consuegra, a construction manager and the father of five, and Perez, who recently adopted a little girl from the Dominican Republic, each have their wives, work and lives in Miami, but LIFO keeps them grounded. They have seen their effort grow from a handful of folks to a couple of dozen volunteers each trip. Some come from as far away as New Jersey and California and include a diversity of religious beliefs — Christian and Jew helping the poor.

Before each summer trip, Perez, who runs a produce business, scouts towns to find committed campesinos who will continue to improve the village once volunteers leave. An engineer tests the water source to ensure it’s not contaminated.  ”A lot of people we take are professionals and young people. They have no idea we can do so much with so little,” Consuegra said. “With picks, shovels, some PVC pipes — it’s an amazing thing.”  Twenty-five trips and 150 volunteers later — not counting all those who return year after year — LIFO has brought clean water to more than 20 energized communities that later start building schools and demanding electricity.”There’s something magical that happens,”Perez said.  ”There’s an exchange of love and goodwill.”  Once the children in a town are freed from having to walk, often barefoot, two or three kilometers several times a day to a stream to bring buckets of water back for their mothers to cook and clean, the world opens up. One boy in a village near Janico became its first college graduate.

Free from drinking dirty water, everyone sees their health improve. Building leadership in those communities, both men say, is the key.  ”They may have to charge some money to fix pipes later, so they have that in mind when we leave,”Consuegra said. “It’s self-help. It’s theirs.”  Adds Perez: “You take a town that has had no running water for generations and in 12 days they helped build their own system. You know the leadership skills that develops? Usually it’s the women. The experience changes them.”  And transforms those who give of themselves to make it happen.