After spending a semester studying and researching in Madagascar in 2017, Southold native Mary Bertschi couldn’t shake what she saw there.
While based at the Centre ValBio, a research center near Ranomafana National Park, Ms. Bertschi, 22, spent time living in several nearby villages. “I got to see firsthand the effects of not having clean water,” she said during an interview in between classes at Stony Brook University Monday.
While researching illnesses associated with lack of access to clean water, a classmate found that more than 80 percent of children under 18 had been exposed to water-based parasites such as Schistosoma, a parasitic worm, and Ascariasis, a type of worm that can be transmitted through fecal matter.
By speaking with women in the various villages, Ms. Bertschi learned that many spend their days walking to collect water — an average of two hours each way.
The necessary task, she said, disproportionately affects women and young children.
“It impacts their ability to go to school, to hold jobs. It becomes their primary responsibility,” she said, adding, “It was just mind-boggling to me. That was another thing that opened my eyes.”
Fast-forward nearly two years, and the SBU senior is plotting a return to Africa — this time, on a humanitarian mission to bring clean, safe water to millions living without access to it.
At the end of May, Ms. Bertschi and 14 classmates will trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, elevation 19,341 feet, to raise money for WaterAid, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing clean water and toilets to the most marginalized communities in over 30 countries.
According to the organization, one in nine people worldwide has no access to clean water and one in three is living without a decent toilet. Since it formed in 1981, WaterAid has brought clean water to 25 million people. Its website says the group’s ultimate goal is to end the water crisis in the regions it targets by 2030.
To do this, they dig wells and install the appropriate infrastructure while working with and educating local residents on how to maintain and expand the systems. “Once they enact these structures and leave, it can be a self-sustaining thing,” Ms. Bertschi said, noting that sustainability was a key factor in her decision to partner with WaterAid.
The trek itself will take six days, during which hikers will experience five distinct climate zones, ranging from rainforest at the base to Arctic conditions at the summit.
“I’ve never done anything this intense before. I’m a little nervous,” Ms. Bertschi said, hoping that her dedication to training and hours on the Stairmaster will pay off. Though scaling Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, is no easy feat, it’s more attainable than you might think. “It’s not like Everest, where you need technical climbing skills,” she said.
To participate, each team member must raise $6,000 by April 3, with half paying for their trip and half going to WaterAid. In all, the 15-member team hopes to raise $90,000 for the cause.
Ms. Bertschi is well on her way toward the goal, with nearly $4,000 raised so far. Apart from fundraising as a group with cash calendars, open bar and music events near campus, she is also fundraising independently through WaterAid and will host a fundraiser at The Greenporter Hotel, where she works.
Called Wine for WaterAid, her event will be held Saturday, March 30, from 6 to 8 p.m. Tickets, which cost $30, include a two-hour open bar and house appetizers — and 100 percent of the proceeds will support the project.
She is also running a Guess My Steps challenge. For $5 per guess, participants can Venmo Ms. Bertschi (@Mary-Bertschi) with their estimate of how many steps it will take her to reach the summit of the mountain. The winner will receive handpicked souvenirs from Tanzania and Zanzibar, she said.
Ms. Bertschi, who is double majoring in marine vertebrate biology and ecosystems and human impact, said this program, run by Choose a Challenge, is ideal for students because it combines a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity with fundraising for a charity. “As college students, we all feel the struggle of not being able to travel,” she said.
After she graduates in December, she hopes to use her degrees to work on water sustainability with the Peace Corps.
“I’ve already started filling out my application,” she said.
For more information or to donate, visit us.wateraid.org/fundraiser/1639697.
For tickets to the Wine for WaterAid fundraiser, call The Greenporter at 631-477-0066.
Photo caption: Mary Bertschi, a 2015 Southold High School graduate, plans to end her senior year at SUNY/Stony Brook by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for WaterAid, a charity that brings clean water to communities in over 30 countries. (Courtesy photo)