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Two congregations find a way to help

Effort to supply water filters becomes an adventure in collaboration

  • In this Sept. 28, 2017, photo, damaged and destroyed homes are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. It was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, destroying tens of thousands of homes and leaving tens of thousands of people without a job. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert



For the Gazette
Monday, October 23, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — It took a midnight run to the Chicopee Walmart, an all-night, last-minute drive to New York City, a secret password at a San Juan rendezvous and over $10,000, but in the end, the mission of two local religious congregations to bring water filters to Puerto Rico was a success.

For the past month, Pastor Irv Gammon and Rabbi Riqi Kosovske, of Florence Congregational Church and the Beit Ahavah Synagogue, respectively, have been raising money to purchase over 200 LifeStraw Family Water Purifiers.

Gammon learned of the LifeStraw device from someone who suggested it to him for hiking. When Gammon saw Puerto Rican children drinking brown, murky water from a river on the news in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, he thought of the filters and knew they would help.

The LifeStraw purifier, according to Gammon, is the perfect water filter to hand out in disaster relief situations. The LifeStraw Family model can filter up to 18,000 liters of water, removing 99 percent of bacteria and viruses. The product, Gammon said, will cleanse dirty river or puddle water, and will provide clean water to a family of four for one year.

“The original goal was to raise enough money for 200 units, but now the ultimate goal is to raise enough to send a thousand units,” Gammon said.

On Wednesday, Oct. 18, the two congregations sent the first 202 water filters to Puerto Rico. They’d raised over $10,500 to buy the devices, which the company sold to them at a discount.

“We got word Wednesday morning that the filters were in good hands and going to head up into higher places, where people could be out of water for a long time,” Gammon said.

Gammon’s and Kosovske’s congregations, though one is Protestant and one is Jewish, have shared a building and space at 130 Pine St. in Florence for 20 years. This was the first major charitable effort they had worked on together, though — a good thing too, according to both Gammon and Kosovske — because getting the 202 filters to the devastated island required lots of collaboration.

“It’s interesting how a Jewish group with their theology and a Christian group with their own theology can find a common ground,” Gammon said. “That common ground is human need.”

When the church and synagogue had finally raised enough money to order the 202 water filters to donate to Puerto Ricans, they still had the problem of getting the devices to the island. LifeStraw does not ship directly to Puerto Rico. According to Gammon, the company says that there have been problems with thefts of shipments to the island.

As word of the problem spread through the congregations, several people began searching for connections that could get the LifeStraw filters to San Juan safely.

One woman, Robin Warner, knew a pilot for JetBlue, Ophneil Kellman, whom Kosovske describes as “having an incredible humanitarian soul.” Kellman was able to change his piloting shift to a flight from New York City to San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Wednesday, Oct. 18. Kellman made it clear to Gammon and Kosovske that any bags he was to take to San Juan had to be at the John F. Kennedy International Airport by 5:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.

“Ophneil was able to work behind the scenes to get the bags on his plane as cargo,” Kosovske said.

Kellman also requested that all 202 of the LifeStraw purifiers were packaged to fit the cargo guidelines of no more than five bags of no more than 50 pounds each.

Kellman’s request created a hassle for the congregations: They had only received the water filters on Tuesday, and had to figure out how to get them to New York City by 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, as well as find a store that was open Tuesday night where they could buy five large duffel bags — they had already bought 18 smaller duffel bags, more than JetBlue would allow on the flight.

It all worked out. Kosovske rushed to a Walmart in Chicopee that carried bags large enough to fit all of the filters in five bags or less, and Paul Warner agreed to drive all night to get the bags to New York City.

“At first it seemed like it was all some fantasy, sending these filters to Puerto Rico,” Kosovske said. “But there’s still over 1 million people there that don’t have a reliable water source, so it was important that we get them off.”

When the filters made it to Puerto Rico, Kosovske had arranged for an administrator of Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan, Zevio Schnitzer, to meet Kellman and get the five bags of filters.

Kellman only had about a half-hour to spend in San Juan to meet Schnitzer, and that was cutting it close. And upon meeting Kellman, Schnitzer had to recite a secret password, to prove he was actually the temple administrator. The password was a verse from the New Testament, Philippians 4:19: “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”

“It was very funny to ask a Jewish guy to say that,” Kosovske said. “It wasn’t in a disrespectful way; we all thought it was funny.”

Kosovske said the filters are being distributed to families in Schnitzer’s temple, families living in more remote areas, to a soup kitchen and to other desperate people. Kosovke and Gammon have already raised nearly enough to purchase another 200 LifeStraw Family water purifiers — another $10,000 — and will have to figure out how to get them to Puerto Rico again. However, Kosovske said, they have faith that they will get it done.

“Everyone is high from the euphoria of doing this. Just the fact that we could get a plane there and have the water filters handed off is an amazing thing,” Kosovske said. “I really don’t think this is the end; I think this is just the beginning.”

Kosovske said that those willing to donate to the Beit Ahavah and Florence Congregational Church joint-effort to send water filters to Puerto Rico may make ouut a check to Florence Congregational Church at 130 Pine St. The memo line should say, “LifeStraw water filters Puerto Rico.”