For Mrs. Tout Tou Bounthapanya, the Rev. Khampheng Mitpasa, and the Rev. Sharon Stanley, clean water is deeply personal. Three of a team preparing for a Living Waters for the World (LWW) clean water system installation in Laos, they each know what it is for life to depend upon clean water.

The three are attending LWW’s inaugural Clean Water U West, at Calvin Crest Conferences in Oakhurst, Calif. 

Clean Water U is the training program of Living Waters for the World — a ministry of the Synod of Living Waters — “where volunteers learn to be trainers to teach people how to install and maintain clean water systems and deliver clean water to communities in desperate need,” says LWW Director, Wil Howie. 

The original Clean Water U campus is located at Hopewell Camp and Conference Center in Oxford, Miss. Having two campuses now allows LWW to train even more volunteers.

Bounthapanya is now comfortably living in the burgeoning Laotian immigrant community in Fresno, Calif., working as a job developer at Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM). 

But as a child she was one of the many Laotians sent to “reeducation” camps, well acquainted with hunger and thirst. 

Arriving at the camp as a three-year-old, she grew up with a daily struggle to find food and water, carrying water twice daily from a nearby river. She often drank water from whatever source was available at the moment, drinking rainwater left standing in the imprint of a water buffalo’s hoof or in the crater left by an American bomb from the Vietnam War.

Mrs. Bounthapanya didn’t understand that water was full of germs and parasites. “I brushed the leaves and mosquito larvae aside to drink what I thought was clean water,” she recalls.

By the time she left the camp for the Philippines at age fourteen, she was emaciated, riddled with contaminated water-borne worms and bacteria. “I was sick with diarrhea and vomiting, with lots of worms. I even remember one worm coming up into my mouth. It was a wonder I survived.” 

The opportunity to go to Laos for an LWW clean water system installation is an opportunity for gratitude for Mrs. Bounthapanya. “I feel I survived my childhood for a purpose and bringing clean water to Laos is a part of that purpose,” she said. 

As a part of this eight-person mission team, she will be teaching about the dangers of contaminated water, the source of many illnesses in her native country. “I thank God that I now have this knowledge to share,” she said in her bubbly manner. Today, Mrs. Bounthapanya is healthy and thrilled to be able to help others avoid water-borne illness.

The Rev. Khampheng Mitpasa is a pastor in the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC) in Laos. He will welcome the installation team from America when they arrive. It is the LEC that has the strong relationship with the Luangprabang Teacher Training College in Luangprabang Province, Laos, where the LWW team from Fresno will be installing the clean water system.

Mitpasa participated in Clean Water U West on a grant from LWW’s International Scholarship Fund, which covered his tuition, room and board. University Presbyterian Church in Fresno covered his travel expenses. 

Amazed to be in Oakhurst, he said, “I find it so great to be able to come here. I never dreamed I would be able to learn about clean water systems. My hope is that, from this first installation we will grow and be able to do other installations in cities and villages.”

Participants hope the installation will be a prototype for future efforts in Laos. “We seek to strengthen relationships around the country in hopes of doing other installations elsewhere. I hope that once this clean water system is installed, more of the Lao people will get clean water to drink,” Mitpasa said. 

He has personally seen the illnesses that come from contaminated water. He said the LEC wants to work to end those illnesses and give children a chance to grow and learn, adding to the stability and economic security of small cities and villages.

The trip’s Fresno team leader is the Rev. Sharon Stanley who is the executive director of FIRM. She founded the ministry 20 years ago to address the ongoing needs of refugees as they settled in Fresno. 

Refugee needs are many: how to become a citizen, financial literacy, child care, language access, and affordable housing, to name a few. 

Another ministry has grown out of FIRM  at University Presbyterian Church in Fresno, where Stanley is a parish associate: Lao Partners, which engages in direct outreach to Laos. Lao Partners have been traveling to Laos for 10 years, building relationships, helping Christian congregations, working with literacy programs, and assisting with the teaching of English as a Second Language. 

Stanley first heard of LWW when she traveled to Baja, Mexico on a mission trip with Presbyterian partners from Virginia. She took a group of Laotian youth from Fresno to work on a housing project in a community in Baja.

While constructing a home, her own water bottle was borrowed by resident children and, unknowing to her, became contaminated with E. Coli. Stanley drank water from the bottle and became infected, the resulting infection leading to multiple surgeries and the ultimate loss of reproductive ability.

The next year, the mission team returned to the same Baja community and installed a LWW clean water system in addition to building houses. During the water system celebration, Stanley recalls, “The pastor of the church shared that 50% of children in their poor community die because they drink contaminated water. I felt at that moment that my unborn children had also died, also because of contaminated water there. This inspired me to help keep such deaths from happening to others in the future, too.”

That’s why for Bounthapanya, Mitpasa and Stanley clean water is personal. Each has a profound sense of God’s grace that drives them to bring the means of clean water to those who are without it. Their own harsh experiences with dirty water have become the gifts they now offer to others so that clean water may flow.

The Rev. Janet Tuck is communications director for the Synod of Living Waters and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.