Making waves for a cause: Local company sets sights on helping Mercy Ships save lives

By Nicole Brodzik
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Hundreds of people are lined up at a port on the coast of Africa. They’re waiting in line to get onto an old rail ferry ship. What’s inside will change, and possibly save, their lives.

The Africa Mercy moves along the coast of the Horn of Africa, making months-long stops at ports to do surgeries on facial deformities, dental work and eye exams, among other procedures. It’s one of four current ships in the Mercy Ship fleet.

To do all of that, the ships need clean water. Minnetrista’s Bob Lucas and Smith Engineering, Inc. are helping provide the clean water the Mercy Ships need.

The Chaska-based engineering company builds water purification systems for the medical industry on a regular basis, but Lucas said they’ve never done work like this before. tnf130720_africa_mercy_mm0039

“This is definitely not something we’re used to doing,” he said. “We work a lot with the medical device industry, but we don’t put systems on moving ships very often.”

Mercy Ships was referred to Smith Engineering Inc. by a a consulting firm for a water purification system for their newest ship, which is currently being built. As soon as Lucas heard Mercy Ships’ story, he wanted in.

“When I saw the story I said I really want to get involved in this,” he said. “In the back of my head, all along I knew I wanted to raise the money to donate the system.”

The group is raising money through their website, smithengineeringinc.com. They hope to cover the $180,000 cost of the system by May 1.

©2016 Mercy Ships - Photo Credit Katie Keegan - Ward Nurse Lucie HOMRICH (DEU) cares for a patient
©2016 Mercy Ships – Photo Credit Katie Keegan – Ward Nurse Lucie HOMRICH (DEU) cares for a patient

Mercy Ships relies heavily on donations to help build and fund the equipment aboard their ships. All of the doctors and nurses aboard the fleet of Mercy Ships are also volunteers, and the costs of all procedures are covered by donations. According to the Mercy Ships’ Biomedical Systems Manager Tom Velnosky, it takes a special group of people to want to help with this project without pay.

“We had been in touch with a couple of other companies before Smith Engineering and they just didn’t really have the interest,” he said. “The extent they’ve gotten involved, the way they’re proactive in talking to companies on our behalf, they’re at the top of the pile for us. They are the most engaged company that I’ve ever seen in my time with Mercy.”

The project started about three months ago and the design phase will be wrapping up shortly. The project will be completed by April 2017. Waconia resident Jake Weiers is the design engineer with Smith Engineering Inc. for the Mercy Ships project and said that there have been some unique difficulties with designing a system for a moving vessel.

“Imagine a giant game of tetris, only with pipes and water purification equipment all stacked on top of each other instead,” Weiers said. “We have to disassemble it to get it into the ship and then reassemble it inside once the ship is finished.”

The system will be about 12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 7 feet tall and will help filter potable water held on board for use in surgeries and lab work. It will be anchored to the ship, but flexible enough to move as the ship moved, all while providing life-saving water to the patients onboard.

The new ship is set to sail in late 2018. The newest edition will be much bigger than the Africa Mercy, with 12 decks compared to the Africa Mercy’s eight, and will be wider and longer than the Africa Mercy as well.

According to Lucas, Smith Engineering Inc.’s employees jumped on board quickly after hearing the story of Mercy Ships. He hopes this is just the beginnin of a strong relationship between Mercy Ships and Smith Engineering Inc.

“I think this is a relationship we’ll have forever,” Lucas said. “Now that we really understand the cause, we want to help.”

“I learned a long time ago that companies don’t give you anything, people do,” Velnosky said. “They are partnering with us, which is much different from just giving us a product. It takes a lot of dedicated people to figure this out.”

Donations of any size can be made at smithengineeringinc.com anytime before May 1. For more information on Mercy Ships, visit mercyships.org.