ROANOKE – Through the support of a grant called Geospatial Technician Education Through Virginia’s Community Colleges, a Virginia Western Community College student is helping provide the people from a small village in El Salvador with cleaner, more reliable water.
Gary Stein is not the traditional college student. A Roanoke native, he moved to San Francisco after graduating from Salem High School in 1968 and started his own successful construction business. After the recent recession struck, he decided to move back to Roanoke and be close to family.
In his 60s, Stein was looking for a way to volunteer and put his building skills to good use. A chance encounter with David Webb, head of Virginia Western’s Geographical Information Systems program, led him on his path.
“I didn’t know anything about GIS when I started,” Stein said. “But I soon saw that this technology is truly a godsend when you apply it to problems in a Third World country. I could be working with someone who doesn’t have an education past the 6th grade, but by creating a map they can understand, I can teach a whole village the concept of a watershed.”
That’s exactly what Stein has done in Armenia, Sonsonate, El Salvador. Along with the nonprofit group USA New Horizons, Stein is helping to build a watershed/ecological park. The College’s NSF-ATE grant provided him with a scholarship and also allowed him the use of Brown Library’s GPS units during a Spring Break trip to the country. While there, he took waypoints and tracks of the current water system and through the assistance of the faculty at Virginia Western, he has created usable maps and images.
“I can’t say enough about what David Webb, Steve Allen and Virginia Western has done to help me,” Stein said. “They have given me training, guidance and support to make this mission a reality. Eventually, these villagers will be able to own their own water system. In the future, that will be critically important as water becomes the next oil globally.”
Stein will be heading back to El Salvador by the end of June to gather some more data, but he will return to Roanoke in time to start the Fall Semester at Virginia Western on Aug. 22. He says that he doesn’t foresee ever running out of things to learn from the College’s curriculum.
“It is so fulfilling to see students find practical applications to the lessons we teach them,” Webb said. “Gary should be commended for his work to improve the lives of thousands of people in El Salvador. We are very proud of him and can’t wait to have him back in class.”
Stein will be ready to pick up some new ideas too. He is already discussing spin-off missions to other parts of Central America.