Climbing for change

Local nonprofit Second Mile Water’s second annual Colorado 54 event seeks to end water poverty

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Courtesy of Travis Ramos

In 2003, while hiking miles through the Himalayas of Southern China, Travis Ramos realized he needed to make a change. He traveled door-to-door through a community of potato farmers known as the Nuosu people, who carve out their homes high on the mountainsides of Yunnan. The farmers’ oldworld lifestyle, supported by nothing more than daily rations of potatoes, redefined poverty for the aspiring engineer.

“Working with these people just opened my eyes up to poverty and what poverty looked like. I grew up in a relatively poor situation in Oklahoma … in a trailer house with the flooring falling through. We didn’t have adequate sanitation, and we had a well in the back of the house where we got water from,” he says. “I grew up thinking I was poor.”

In 2012, his experience in China inspired him to start a nonprofit, Second Mile Water, to improve the lives of indigent communities through the creation of clean water systems. The idea came in 2009 after he visited the Jalapa Valley in rural Nicaragua, a region crippled by contaminated water. Ramos found that thousands of rural communities in the area live without running water and, instead, source from polluted rivers and dilapidated wells often miles away.

His trip in 2009 was heartbreaking, he says. “Their scenario is so much different than ours in that ‘making it’ for them doesn’t mean finding a good job, it actually just means [maintaining] your bare necessities, having a place to get clean water to give to children, to feed your family.”

Ramos, a Louisville resident, raises money through Second Mile Water to support the construction of protected wells, sanitation tanks and filtration systems in the Jalapa Valley and other rural areas in Nicaragua. This year, the organization set a goal of sending climbers to the top of every 14er in Colorado on Aug. 8 at their second annual event, Colorado 54, in an effort to bring clean water to Nicaragua.

The money raised through the Colorado 54 helps the Nicaraguanbased nonprofit El Porvenir repair and build water systems primarily in rural areas on the outskirts of cities like Estelí near Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua. The water projects completed over the past two years, with support from the $75,000 raised through Colorado 54 in 2014, have provided over 500 Nicaraguans with clean water.

“I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished last year, what the adventurous at heart here in Colorado were able to do,” he says.

Ayn-Marie Hailicka, a newcomer to Colorado, raised nearly $2,000 last year with her boyfriend Zach Taylor for their climb up Mount Evans. The most memorable part of her climb was seeing everyone gather together on the peak, she says, where she was given $50 by a couple of strangers after explaining Second Mile Water’s cause.

“[Colorado 54] is bringing people together to do something that’s very Colorado, like hiking 14ers,” she says. “I like that [Ramos is] tapping into Colorado’s heart and then doing it for a cause.”

Hailicka not only spread the word by sporting a Colorado 54 T-shirt at every training session, but she also ran a public relations campaign for Ramos that landed him in TV, radio and print. An overwhelming number of people were unaware of the perils of Nicaragua, she says, which inspired her to come back to Colorado 54 this year.

“It was a no brainer for us to be a part of it again. I think Travis got a lot of momentum going last year that really helped him carry it through to this year’s event,” she explains.

She’s working with Taylor again this year to raise $5,000 for their climb up Longs Peak. Although a registration cost of $50 is required to participate in the event, each climbing team is asked to raise $250 — enough to give one family access to clean water, according to Second Mile Water.

“There is a huge, huge need [in Nicaragua] for water, sanitation [and] hygiene among the poorest of the poor,” Ramos says.

After the Nicaraguan Revolution of the ’70s, the country’s government attempted to decentralize their water sector to no avail. While municipalities are now required by law to establish clean water and sanitation throughout the country, many rural communities are left to seek support with little or no funding. Potable water and sanitation committees oversee most rural towns. According to a 2015 report by the United Nation’s Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, 69 percent of rural communities in Nicaragua have access to clean water while only 56 percent are provided with improved sanitation. Waterborne diseases like cholera, typhoid fever and hepatitis A are common in regions like Jalapa Valley as a result of such long-term instability.

Ramos started working in the Jalapa Valley in 2009 in collaboration with Boulder’s Friendship City Projects (FCP), a community-based organization that has completed several water systems in the valley, to provide clean water to a small town called Pasmata. With some financial support from FCP and the Boulder Valley Rotary Club, Ramos later formed Second Mile Water and hired contractors to begin construction of a spring-fed well in the nearby town El Bosque. Funds raised on Aug. 8 will go toward completing the El Bosque well.

“I realized very early on that starting a nonprofit is ridiculously difficult,” he says. Second Mile Water’s eventual goal is to hire “circuit riders,” local contractors who travel to each community and maintain the upkeep of water systems. The nonprofit’s dollars are matched by the benefiting cities and governments in Nicaragua to help establish ownership and accountability at the local level.

His days spent with the Nuosu people led to the creation of this business model and prevents him from acting as a “gringo savior,” he says. “That kind of action tends to destroy cultures and destroy those old and beautiful ways of life.”

Second Mile Water claims they will remain in communication with a country in need for 15 years or until local stability emerges.

While only around 100 people have registered for the Colorado 54 this year, Ramos expects the number of participants will double as the event nears.

“We hope to grow [Colorado 54] into one of Colorado’s biggest mountain events during the year,” he says.

The reward of seeing some families receive clean water for the first time in their lives fuels Ramos’ passion for the event and furthering Second Mile Water’s reach as an organization.

“There are some pictures that I will treasure for the rest of my life of the people after they’ve gotten access to clean water,” he says. “The look on their faces and the change that that has in their lives is hard to encapsulate in a sentence.”

Those interested in supporting Colorado 54 can raise funds independently and are not limited to participating in the climb. To register for the event, visit www.co54.secondmilewater.org.

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