Thursday May 4, 2006

Graduates Aim for Top International Killer

They will be taking solar cooker technology to combat indoor air pollution that kills 1.6 million people worldwide. The World Health Organization counts it one of the developing world's top killers.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Nearly 1,550 students will receive degrees from the University of Dayton at 10 a.m. on Sunday, May 7, in University of Dayton Arena.

University of Dayton students Michael Vehar and Collin Whelley will graduate May 7 and head for jobs in Bolivia that pay nothing and have as much as a two-day commute by boat and foot.

Vehar, an industrial engineering technology major, and Whelley, a political science and psychology major, will be taking solar cooker technology to combat indoor air pollution that kills 1.6 million people worldwide. About 56 percent of those deaths occur under the age of 5.

The pollution often is 100 times the suggested limit and causes respiratory infections, which the World Health Organization counts as one of the developing world's top killers.

In the world's more remote areas, people cook inside with fire fueled by unprocessed biomass fuel like wood, dung and crop remains, according to Mexico's National Institute of Respiratory Diseases. Vehar said many of the families have no idea the pollution is killing them.

Solar cookers, which can be made for as little as $30, thoroughly cook any type of food without producing pollutants and are not labor-intensive, according to Vehar. People would not have to spend time searching for or buying fuel sources, or chopping trees. During cooking, they would be free to wash clothes or go to the market, rather than watching the fire.

The cookers also can be used to make safe drinking water and help prevent forest fires.

Vehar worked the past two summers in Bolivia as part of UD's Engineers in Technical, Humanitarian Opportunities of Service-learning program. He met Whelley two years ago on a UD retreat, and they started their Bolivia Project as a post-graduation service project. They have to raise their own funds for the project and have reached only 24 percent of their goal.

"Even if we only raise that much, we still are going," Vehar said. "Collin and I are paying for our own trips. Every cent we raise will go to transportation or material costs. The more we raise, the more courses we can do in far, rural areas."

They will be working with Sobre la Roca, a Bolivian company owned by Ruth Saavedra, who is refining and spreading solar cooker technology. During five-day courses, Whelley and Vehar will help Bolivians assemble and use their own cookers.

Vehar said most people are surprised when they hear his plans after college, but it gives him a chance to explain the project.

"It has been my dream to help the people on a larger scale since I went there the first time," said Vehar, who spent three months during the last two summers in Bolivia. "I definitely feel there is a fulfilling future in this. "

Vehar said he started thinking about a return trip after seeing the cooking methods used in extreme rural areas "as far from civilization as you can get. It took five hours on a highway, then five hours on a bumpy road, then a long canoe ride and an hour walk through the jungle."

After his trip to Bolivia, Vehar plans to go home to Cleveland and get a job to refortify his finances before heading out again to spread solar oven technology.

For more information, contact Shawn Robinson at (937) 229-3391, Michael Vehar at michaelvehar@yahoo.com or watch the Bolivia Project video. Vehar and Whelley also can offer an onsite demonstration that will take no more than 20 minutes. After graduation and a short trip, they will be available for interviews between May 16 and May 31, when they will leave for Bolivia.