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Make Things Happen

Make Things Happen

By Heidi Williams

The SCU student chapter of Engineers Without Borders help make roofing tiles in Rwanda. Photo courtesy SCU School of Engineering
Inspired by the late “Professor Jimmy” Reites, S.J., members of the SCU chapter of Engineers Without Borders spent the summer in Rwanda, helping locals with a more efficient method of producing roofing tiles.

Whether you knew him as Jim, Padre, Father Reites, Papa Reites, Professor Jimmy, or any number of other monikers he collected during his 41-year tenure with Santa Clara University, to know Jim Reites, S.J., was to love and respect him. When he passed away unexpectedly last April, the diminutive Jesuit left a gigantic void within the School of Engineering. He was our “boots on the ground” guy, the shepherd of many long-term, hands-on, local and global student-led projects. Over the years, he broadened students’ worldviews by accompanying teams to Mexico, El Salvador, Ghana, and Rwanda for humanitarian projects in some of the planet’s poorest places. His expertise, far-flung network of contacts, good humor, and can-do spirit helped get the job done. His kindness, generosity, and spirituality inspired and helped our students grow.

Knowing that, before Associate Dean of Undergraduate Engineering Ruth Davis visited Rwanda in 2014 with a delegation from TechWomen, she checked in with Jim, who told her about a fellow cleric working with PICO International to rebuild the country following its 1994 genocide. Davis learned that a group of about 40 residents from scattered villages in the district of Nyange—mostly women, and many of them widows—had formed a cooperative to make roof tiles for their own homes and as a way to generate income. But production was slow and arduous. The work was all done by hand, except for mixing the clay—which was done by foot.

Davis returned to campus inspired to get SCU involved, and a team from the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, advised by civil engineering senior lecturer Tonya “Dr. T.” Nilsson, took on the challenge of designing and building a tile press that would provide a mechanical advantage so more tiles could be made each day. Over several months and many Skype calls with villagers (which could only take place if it wasn’t raining; no closed structures could fit the entire group), together they hashed out details and requirements. That summer, the students traveled to Nyange with Fr. Reites to test the tile press and determine what was needed next.

A clay mixer that had been identified as the next project was being completed by a new student team when Papa Reites suddenly passed away, jeopardizing the summer trip to Rwanda. Yet the energy, excitement, and commitment to this project live on. In late August, Dr. T. and the student team traveled to Nyange, where they courageously faced long days of frustration and shifting timelines as they dealt with the bureaucracy and red tape surrounding the release of their equipment from customs—never losing hope or focus on their goal. Before getting the tile press and clay mixer up and running and before training co-op members on use of the equipment, the team met with villagers and shared photos and stories of Professor Jimmy, as Fr. Reites was known there.

Former EWB chapter president Mohit Nalavadi ’16, who joined both summer trips, remembered his beloved mentor fondly. “He taught us to go about the world as authentic human beings, with the wisdom of the aged, the vitality of the young, and the curiosity of a child. He left us with the deep sense of social responsibility with which he lived every day. I am grateful that we all had the experience of working with him in the past year. Together, our teams laid the groundwork for great progress in Rwandan communities, and shared beautiful, lasting memories.”

Though he is dearly and daily missed, Papa Reites’ legacy of caring and doing for others continues. During their trip to Rwanda, the team met with staff from the regional medical clinic and with district leaders to discuss how SCU EWB may help with the community’s most pressing needs. Having witnessed firsthand its malnutrition and bleak conditions, mechanical engineering junior Josie Warren commented, “Last year I would take project delays without any major concern because I didn’t know or understand how desperately the community needs this co-op to be successful, simply so that they can have enough to eat. I think one reason Fr. Reites so often visited poor communities was for the reminder of the importance of these efforts, and it’s our responsibility and our goal to keep up his work.”

At this year’s Grand Reunion, gather with fellow Broncos on Oct. 8 at 11:00 to celebrate the life and legacy of Fr. Jim Reites.

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