In 1971, Willis Miller set out to make a contribution in this life that truly would matter. He moved to Haiti, and for the next 10 years, he drilled water wells. For the past 28 years, his operation has continued as a diverse, multidenominational mission.

In 1971, Willis Miller set out to make a contribution in this life that truly would matter. He moved to Haiti where, in spite of living on an island, much of the population lived without access to clean drinking water. For the next 10 years, he drilled water wells with several companies, intent on sharing God’s love by giving people what has been the most powerful symbol of life for every culture from the beginning of time.

However, with no investment by the primary stakeholders, the pumps fell into disrepair. The islanders returned to dirty creeks and backwaters for drinking water, and waterborne diseases and maladies ensued. Ten years after he started, Miller went back home to Wapello, Iowa, defeated.

His farmer friend Kenneth Grimm didn’t let him quit. Grimm sold farm equipment, rented out 250 acres of land, and, within three months, brought Miller $30,000 dollars, saying, “You can do it.” So Miller returned to Haiti to start his own well drilling ministry. For the past 28 years, his operation has continued as a diverse, multidenominational mission that’s been so successful that it recently added another drill rig – an Atlas Copco T2W.

Origin of Water for Life

Leon Miller, who joined his father in the Haiti mission in 1985, retells the story of how the mission got its name. “We always wanted people to realize the love of Jesus in this. The villagers are so happy when we hit water. They hug you. They kiss you. To the people, the driller is a kind of a hero.”

In that first year, Leon says a missionary named Marion Layman, witnessing just such a celebration, remarked to his father, “Water is life. So you should call your mission ‘Water for Life.’” And so his father did, pleased with its Christian overtones.

Today, there are several organizations in the world with missions named “Water for Life,” but there is no real affiliation among them other than that they bear the same name. To distinguish their operation from others, the Millers simply added “Haiti” to their company moniker, becoming “Water for Life Haiti.”

Strong As Ever

Though Leon and his wife came back to give their children a more customary American lifestyle while the children grew up, he has been continuously involved with Water for Life for 25 years. Leon’s nephew, Troy Miller, has been the primary driller for the past three years. He lives in remote areas among the Haitian people, who provide him with food and lodging during his work. And Leon’s brother-in-law, Leonard Hochstedler, serves as home office administrator back in Iowa, ordering and arranging shipping for parts and supplies, casing and pumps, and taking care of all the paperwork.

At age 90, Willis is officially retired, though he still is involved with Water for Life Haiti even today from his home in Kalona, Iowa.

Prior to his return to the United States with his uncle Leon to pick up their new Atlas Copco T2W, Troy had just completed the 798th 5-inch well. These wells are drilled in abrasive volcanic rock with some shale at altitude, and in sand and gravel formations in the bottom lands. They have drilled to as deep as 800 feet or more, but the average well is 125 feet to 150 feet deep. Wells drilled closer to the coastlines run the risk of hitting brine, but they have been fairly successful; only 50 of the wells have had to be abandoned as dry or too salty.

Irrigation's Impact

Soon after Water for Life Haiti started its mission, Grimm devised an irrigation plan. There was good soil here with water just 100 feet below it. So they drilled a 10-inch well, and installed a diesel-powered turbine to provide flood irrigation from the 900-gpm water source. Once the land was cleared and watered, the people began growing corn, beans, banana trees and vegetables. Next, Grimm’s generous contacts from Nebraska provided 750-foot-long center-pivot irrigation sprinklers. The irrigated circles beneath the sprinklers were divided into half-acre, pie-shaped lots for family gardens.

Irrigation’s success meant the people now needed a corn grinder for all the grain they raised. Water for Life provided one, as well as a walk-in cooler for storage, which local fishermen also began to use to keep their catches fresh. The benefits just continued to escalate from there. For instance, with ample water available and more abundant food, children who had been a critical labor force for daily sustenance now were free to attend school.

Today's Operations

One significant difference between today’s Water for Life operation and Willis Miller’s initial experience drilling in the 1970s is that the primary stakeholders must invest in the project, raising funds for a well. The example given was around $200 in Haitian dollars. This may seem nominal by American standards, but it is a significant amount for a Haitian community to raise. And to maintain the wells, Water for Life now has a Haitian crew that operates a truck with a winch on back that can go wherever repairs are needed. Repairs also require community funding.

Primary stakeholders now take measures to protect the pump from carelessness and abuse. The result is that pumps last much longer, since community leaders know they will have to come up with the money again for any upkeep. Water for Life will not turn away from need, though. Leon says that the organization knows too well that if a village can’t fix a pump, the villagers will go back to drinking dirty water, and the cycle of disease will begin again.

Larger expenses are paid from donations abroad, such as those for a bulldozer and a dump truck drill for opening or upgrading roads to the sites for drilling the wells. Leon says God surely is indicating that he wants the mission to continue, because money for these essential machines comes in when it’s needed, as now, with the purchase of the new T2W.

Choosing the Rig

The T2W was well-endorsed by the team’s resident equipment specialist, Harold “Buck” White. White first started working on drilling sites with his father when he was 8 years old. By the age of 18, he was a driller himself. During the time he was a salesman for Ingersoll–Rand in Villa Park, Ill., he met Leon Miller, and sold Water for Life its first drill – a competitor’s model.

Now retired, White remains dedicated to what he calls an “awesome, awesome mission,” saying Leon’s crews “drill wells as real water well drillers, not just churchy people.” According to White, these men aren’t just visiting missionaries, but real drillers, living out in the middle of nowhere. All told, White has been to Haiti 28 times to help out with that first rig, fine-tuning it and repairing it.

Testing the Rig

The rig traveled from the Atlas Copco manufacturing facility in Gar-land, Texas, directly to Milwaukee, Wis., for performance testing in Atlas Copco’s Waterwell Center of Excellence. Leon and Troy came to Milwaukee from Haiti to take possession. In the unusually cold April the Midwest was enduring, they drove it to Kalona, Iowa, to initiate the debugging process of a new rig. Here they put its mud-drilling capability to the test. It had no problem in the rich farmland soil, but they really wanted to try it in rock with their new Atlas Copco TD 40 hammer. Clint Madison’s farm near Williford, Ark., was the perfect place. He had plenty of rock, and his place was on the way to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where the rig would be loaded for shipment by sea.

White had met Clint Madison of Madison Drilling near Williford, Ark., also while he was working as an Ingersoll-Rand salesman. Madison has a reputation for being able to fix or fabricate anything, and his farm bears this out with not only his own drill rig, but a vast array of machinery, including antique tractors and a tail-dragger airplane. He says that he’s been “turning wrenches” for Water for Life Haiti for years, and his son Rob has joined him in Haiti to make repairs.

On the Madison farm, Troy quickly drilled through the unconsolidated soil of a low-lying pasture within a shout of the Madison homestead. Then he switched out the mud drill and tricone to put in the hammer. White and Madison joined Troy at the rig as it worked, and Troy fairly quickly found 21⁄2 feet per minute in limestone with an 8-inch bit on the TD 40.

Leon explains that they needed to really put the rig through its paces, debugging it thoroughly, because once they got it back to Haiti, they would be far from support. “The pressures are dead on,” notes White. “I was ready to make adjustments but they didn’t need any. They did an excellent job up in Milwaukee,” referring to the Atlas Copco Waterwell Center of Excellence, where the rig had been gone over in systematic detail before Water for Life Haiti took possession.

“Not just any rig can handle those roads,” Leon stresses. White agrees, adding, “It would tear the carriages right off a lot of other rigs.” For the extra margin of comfort, they did take the precaution of ordering their rig with lifting blocks under the suspension to raise everything another 4 inches. But its big wheels, ample power and small footprint ensured that it would be up to the demanding island environment.