Steve Surprenant ’84 lives life simply, guided by the maxim: Start where you are, use what you have and do what you can.
“I’m not an expert in water,” he said. “I’m not an expert in engineering. I’m not an expert in culture. My wife and I were simply trying to help people. Our idea was to meet the needs of desperately thirsty people in developing countries by drilling deep water wells into bedrock.”
From that worthy desire sprung Fresh Water Friends, the federally recognized, public charity registered in March 2017.
His wife, Cheryl Cope Surprenant ’86, and a group of 40 friends from Orchard Park, N.Y., initially raised $5,000 to
pay for two deep bedrock wells in India. Today, there are over a dozen Fresh Water Friends teams and donors in 16 states, Canada and England.
In just two years, the group has raised over $280,000 to install more than 90 deep water wells that provide fresh water daily to more than 90,000 people in villages in India, Pakistan and Uganda.
During a campus visit through the Oswego Alumni Association’s Alumni-In-Residence program, Steve, a geology major, learned of the tragic death of Assistant Professor of Geology Brian Hough, and decided to fundraise and install a bedrock well in his honor.
Before founding Fresh Water Friends, Steve worked as an environmental geologist supervising drilling rig operations for soil and bedrock investigations in Florida and New York. Eventually, he discovered that his heart was in helping people, so he changed careers to pursue a life of service.
‘Jeeva Jala‘ means ‘Living Water‘
It was on an exploratory trip to India in 2002 when he first witnessed grinding poverty. Girls and women fetching water for their families often had to trek 10 to 15 miles a day carrying water containers that can weigh up to 40 pounds.
In addition to the arduous task of finding and carrying the water, the girls faced other dangers on the road—sometimes suffering physical or sexual abuse in order to access the water source. “Life is brutally hard for these women and girls,” he said. “They’re powerless. They can’t get an education. They have no real choices.”
Sometimes the water source itself poses life-threatening dangers. Collecting water from infected or polluted water in streams, ponds and ditches can easily lead to diseases or death, especially for children under 5 years of age, Steve noted.
“Our solution was to drill water wells, where entire villages can gain access to fresh water,” he said. “A well provides a sense of community that didn’t exist before. We can see an immediate increase in health, hygiene and schooling—especially for girls. Access to clean water allows for medical care, daycare and literacy training where the well is installed.”
From his office in his home, Steve coordinates the construction of the wells with a team of people in the villages through email and social media applications.
“I talk to them via video text in real time,” he said. Although Fresh Water Friends works with professional geologists, drillers, electricians, plumbers and masons in the field, Steve said the villagers enthusiastically volunteer to help in any way they can.
“Villagers will leave work to watch, to help and to await the arrival of water to their village,” he said. Looking at photos of villagers gathered around the water flowing from a Fresh Water Friends well, Steve commented: “Every girl you see here has been delivered from massive struggles in her life, and that makes me really, really happy.
“And I love this photo,” he said. “This picture shows Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, all gathered together, all smiling. They come together to celebrate water. Water unites us. It humanizes us. And in the end, people are people. We all love our families. We all want to see our loved ones provided for. Let’s give them fresh water.”
Well Dedicated in Honor of Late Geology Professor
Brian Hough, an assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Geological Sciences, was killed on Oct. 6, 2018, when a stretch limousine crashed at the junction of New York state routes 30 and 30A north of Schoharie, N.Y. The driver and all 17 passengers were killed, as were Brian and his father-in-law, James Schnurr, who were standing in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store.
A few weeks after the accident, geology major Steve Surprenant ’84 visited campus to speak to students through the Oswego Alumni Association’s Alumni-In-Residence program. He knew of the accident but didn’t realize there was a SUNY Oswego connection until he came to campus.
“I was overcome with the tragedy of the situation and wanted to do something,” he said. He connected with Brian’s wife, Jackie Schnurr, and asked if Fresh Water Friends could build a well in honor of Brian. She agreed and helped fundraise for the well through a Facebook post.
Within weeks, the money was raised, and by early January, the well was built in a small village in the state of Karnataka, India. A plaque on the well reads: “This Life-Giving Bedrock Well is a Gift in Honor of: Dr. Brian Hough, SUNY Oswego-Geology Dept., Fresh Water Friends.”
The well now provides fresh water to approximately 1,200 villagers, including the 55 boys who live at the school where the public well is located.
“I hope that this well and the life water it provides to so many will bring comfort to Brian’s family and friends,” Steve said. “His memory will live on through these villagers for years to come.”
Friendships That Won’t Run Dry
Retired U.S. Marine Captain and Recon Platoon Commander Kurt Blomback ’83, a zoology major, has been close friends with Steve Surprenant ’84 since they met in Riggs Hall in 1980. Little did they know, their diverse career paths would eventually reunite around water wells.
After retiring from the military, Kurt went on to found the Montana-based company, Apocalypse Well Pumps. His business enables homeowners to easily add a hand-operated emergency well pump to their existing water well in case they lose electricity. Secure wells that have a back-up pump are critically needed to supply water for rural families in various crisis scenarios, where prolonged loss of power is expected.
After learning of Steve’s mission to bring water to those in need, Kurt decided to donate 5 percent from every sale of his pumps to Fresh Water Friends.
Another SUNY Oswego friend, David Daignault ’87, currently heads up a Syracuse group of Fresh Water Friends donors. They have raised funds to install four wells in India so far, with more to come.