The desire for humanitarian work has been a lifelong calling for former Gig Harbor resident Michael Ewens.
“The seed of the desire to do humanitarian work has been in me my whole life,” Ewens, 57, said.
In 2005 he was building a house in Gig Harbor and had an idea to travel to Guatemala to look for a yet-unknown humanitarian project.
Then, in 2006, his son Forrest was killed while serving overseas in Afghanistan with the U.S. military. Ewens received $10,000 from his son’s life insurance policy. He wanted to take his son’s legacy and tie it into the humanitarian work overseas; he was interested in finding a humanitarian organization in Guatemala and helping with a water project.
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The problem was, Ewens couldn’t find an organization to help him.
So Ewens continued to explore Guatemala on his own, and was directed to a mountainous region of extreme poverty and a people who had survived war and attempted genocide: the Ixil people.
The Ixil are a Mayan indigenous people numbering about 37,000 whose primary language is a Mayan dialect. To reach the Ixil, Ewens traveled along a road built in 2005, just before his arrival, and then continued past the road’s end for nearly four hours.
What ripples will be created in the middle of this extreme poverty if we seed paradise?
Michael Ewens, founder of The Ripple Effect
What he found were villages without potable water, sustainable food sources and men, women and children living in extreme poverty, as defined by the United Nations.
Ewens has his own definition: “Extreme poverty is when a mother feeds her kids leaves from the forest or tortillas and salt to fill their bellies, and the goal is not to get a nutritious diet, but to stop the hunger pains. None of that makes any sense to me. Inside my heart and my head I always cried out ‘This doesn’t make sense to me.’”
Ewens remained in the villages and has worked and lived with the Ixil people for the past eight years. His humanitarian organization, The Ripple Effect (TRE), founded with the money from his son’s life insurance, was started to combat the extreme poverty and improve the lives of the Ixil people.
He was in Gig Harbor this week meeting with Morning Rotary Club members and visiting family.
Ewens went about identifying the needs of the Ixil by asking their elders to outline their top three needs, which started a dialog between the villagers and TRE that allowed the Ixil a level of control over their development.
The first necessity for these villages is clean water, Ewens said, followed by food security.
TRE is finishing up its eighth water project to date, working closely with the villagers who will carry the supplies for the project six hours up the mountain and dig miles of trenches. As the water projects are completed, Ewens has turned his attention to securing a sustainable source of food for the Ixil.
It’s the motivation for his most ambitious project to date: Eden Ixil, an agricultural training center.
TRE purchased 10 acres of land, including riverfront access, two creeks, two springs and a ranch house as a location to teach sustainable agricultural practices, animal husbandry and technology classes to the Ixil.
600 the number of family gardens started by The Ripple Effect last year
“I believe that this agricultural training center will make the work that we’ve started sustainable past anything else we’ve done,” Ewens said. “It has the ability for the Ixil people to learn, to teach and to grow.”
He added that gardening is more complex than water projects, but this past year alone have established 600 family gardens in seven villages.
The goal of Eden Ixil — and TRE — is development.
“A project happens on time, development takes a bit longer, but when you pull your hands out, it’s still there,” Ewens said. “What ripples will be created in the middle of this extreme poverty if we seed paradise?”
Ewen says TRE remains effective in the area as a grassroots organization with strong relationship ties to the villages.
“We’re efficient because only paid staff is Ixil people, two percent of budget is in overhead,” Ewen said. “Almost 100 percent of donations go to help families that need it, and the overhead goes to employ people who need it in a region of unemployment.”
Ewens and TRE have partnered with many international and U.S.-based aid organizations — including a Florida organization, Miracles in Action, which is looking to finance a documentary on Ewens’ work — but one of his ongoing sources of support has been the Morning Rotary Club in Gig Harbor.
“One thing I think is unique with TRE and Gig Harbor is that it’s a connection between affluence and extreme poverty,” Ewens said. “There’s a really good relationship between international committees in these rotary clubs and the villages.”
For us, it’s a labor of love as well, but (also) something well within our wheelhouse of what we like to contribute to.
Al Abbott, Morning Rotary
Al Abbott was president of the Morning Rotary Club when Buck Frymeir introduced Ewens and TRE to the club.
Water projects are something that are important to the club, and was what inspired them to become involved with Ewens, Abbott said.
“Our club is a hands-on club, we don’t just give you money, we go and build things,” Abbott said. “Our club is very committed to potable water.”
The relationship continued, with the donations from Rotary allowing TRE to operate on the level with the local government, Ewens said.
“For Michael, (the work is) clearly a labor of love,” Abbott said. “For us, it’s a labor of love as well, but (also) something well within our wheelhouse of what we like to contribute to.”
Ewen lives with the Ixil year-round and plans to remain living and working with them for the remainder of his life.
“I plan to live and I plan to die there,” Ewen said. “At 57, this is the final stage of my life ... I don’t think I could come out.”
For more information on TRE, to donate or to stay updated on Ewens work, visit www.therippleeffectinc.org.