Jim Gehrels, a member of Bethlehem Christian Reformed Church in Thunder Bay, Ont., who died in July 2020, is the recipient of one of Canada’s highest honors—a meritorious service medal awarded by the governor general of Canada—for his work with the charity Lifewater Canada. Founded in 1997 by Gehrels and friend Glenn Stronks, Lifewater drills and services wells to provide safe drinking water in Liberia, Nigeria, Kenya, and Haiti.
Gehrels’ wife, Lynda, assumed the presidency of Lifewater Canada after Jim’s death. With a smile she described him as a visionary: “A big man with a big heart.” His career was as a professional hydrogeologist with the Ontario Public Service. Planning on using those skills in mission after retirement, Gehrels moved up the timeline after being diagnosed with an incurable eye disease. He first traveled to Liberia in 1995 with one rig to train 12 Liberians and drill two wells. He arrived in the midst of a civil war and met children who had no clean water source. When the country's president requested that he return, he couldn't turn away.
“The bottom line for Jim was, he could do something,” said Lynda. Even with his failing eyesight and her bad back, “we could do something step by step, one thing at a time, and we could make a difference.” They did. Jeff Adams, Lifewater’s manager of donor and volunteer relations, relates the stats: Lifewater has drilled 1,698 wells, rehabilitated 544 broken-down wells, repaired 3,514 hand pumps, installed 167 rainwater catchment and storage systems, built 126 community toilets, installed 91 hand-washing stations, and organized hundreds of health and hygiene workshops. Over 7 million people in Haiti and the three African countries have directly benefited from Lifewater’s work.
Adams, a member of Emmanuel CRC in Calgary, Alta., joined Lifewater last fall. He is one of three part-time contractors working from home; Lynda continues as a full-time volunteer. Lifewater calls on a pool of over 100 skilled workers—carpenters, drillers, engineers, plumbers—to make overseas trips as needed. In-country teams, trained by Lifewater, continue to drill new wells and maintain existing ones. “We’re small but mighty,” said Lynda, “and very focused.”
The organization’s grassroots model allowed for continued operation through the pandemic travel shutdowns. They continued their existing work and even expanded, forming new partnerships with a drilling and repair team in Nigeria and an organization installing rainwater catchment and storage systems in Kenya.
Lynda was informed about the medal by a letter from the governor general’s office in January. She will receive the award on Jim’s behalf. “I know he would have expressed the deep heartfelt need to bring equality for children,” she said. “Where you live shouldn’t determine whether you live or die, because everyone has the right to safe water.”
Stronks also received a medal as co-founder of Lifewater Canada. A former colleague of Jim Gehrels at the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, Stronks shared in the teaching and training side of Lifewater and is now retired in Orillia, Ont.