Wells of Hope: Ted van der Zalm
When Ted van der Zalm was a boy in St. Catharines, Ontario (Canada), he learned many things from his father, but one lesson stood out above all: it is better to give than to receive.
In Ted’s case, the giving has never been confined to conventional gifts. He has brought clean water to remote parts of the globe.
In 1985, he first went to Tanzania in East Africa as a volunteer missionary. There he received a very humbling lesson regarding all the things he’d taken for granted living in Canada, such as a glass of clean water — a true luxury in his new home.
His job in Tanzania was to build windmills and drill wells in impoverished rural villages and to find a clean, reliable water source for the local population.
Ted van der Zalm
Before he and other missionaries arrived, the people walked five miles each morning looking for a bucketful of clean water. Many returned to their mud huts with only a brown, bacteria-infested liquid that stunted growth and spread diseases such as malaria.
After three years in Tanzania, Ted met Miriam. The two of them were married and worked side by side for seven years in East Africa. During that time, Ted earned a pilot’s license.
In Tanzania, he flew a plane to transport doctors and patients from rural areas to modern medical facilities. One day the engine failed and Ted was forced to land the sputtering craft in a sugar field. This made him more certain than ever that God was keeping him alive for a reason; obviously, there were still missions for him to fulfill.
The couple’s first child, Sarah, was born in Tanzania, and a short while later they moved back to Ontario to raise their family, and have four other children. Ted became a high school religion teacher, but he badly missed working in the Third World.
When he and Miriam learned of a chance to help the people of Guatemala, they packed up their belongings and their children and headed south. The United Nations had recently published a report stating that “a person dies every eight seconds due to water-related diseases,” and the van der Zalms were committed to changing this tragic reality.
For six months they lived in tents, building an irrigation system that would bring clean water to villagers. Ted made enormous personal sacrifices in his work. Once, while digging a 75-foot-deep well, he became so exhausted and dehydrated that he lost vision in one eye.
Despite these hardships, he built 30 new wells to the local population. Every day they spent in Guatemala, the van der Zalms saw how much they had to be grateful for.
In the fall of 2004, another opportunity arose for the family to go back to Guatemala, but this time they had to provide their own financing. They mortgaged their home to buy a well-digging rig, and off they went with their kids in tow. They drove the digging equipment and support vehicles from Ontario to Guatemala.
A longtime member of the Knights of Columbus, Ted now asked his fellow Knights for help. As the van der Zalms traveled south through the United States, Knights of Columbus in each place they stopped provided the family with lodging, meals and gas money for the next leg of the journey.
Ted also started an organization called Wells of Hope, which raises funds for future irrigation projects in rural Guatemala. As their parish priest Father Paul J. McDonald wrote about Ted and his family, “Their extraordinary devotion to the poor is inspiring. May their enthusiasm spread to more and more.”
This article is excerpted from the book By Their Works, published by the Knights of Columbus.