Article by: Abigail Salazar
Richard Cowles poses with women selling garlic, dried ginger and tomato powder during his daily visit to the market in Chad in 1994, where he was stationed as a member of the Peace Corps from 1993-1996. “In Chad, we took a [bucket bath] pretty much every night,” Cowles said. “It’s not like here in Austin where you are traveling in your car or have a nice classroom and don’t get dirty so easily. My classroom in Chad had dirty floors, and I had to walk to school because it was not far away, and everything there was a little bit more dusty.” Photo courtesy of Richard Cowles.
Tomorrow at midnight, the PALS can shower again. Since midnight last Saturday, they have been participating in the annual Shower Strike, helmed by Peer-Assisted Leadership and Service club, or PALS, sponsor and math teacher Richard Cowles. The strike, created and organized by the Austin-based non-government organization Well Aware, raises money to build sustainable clean water wells in East Africa. Participants in the strike, which this year included the PALS and the members of the Environmental Knights club, must go all week without using running water to bathe. They can choose to abstain from bathing entirely, or they can fill a five-gallon bucket with water and use it to bathe.
Cowles got the PALS, and by extension, McCallum, involved in the Shower Strike four years ago because of his experience living in an environment where clean water is scarce. From 1993 to 1996, Cowles was a volunteer in the Peace Corps and served as a sixth- and seventh-grade math teacher in Pala, Chad.
“I was there firsthand to witness how difficult life was without running water, so it converted me into a water miser,” Cowles said. “During the Peace Corps, the house that I lived in had no electricity and no running water. We had a 50-gallon container in our house, and we had a well nearby that we would pay students to go and draw the water and bring it to us, and we would dump it in the 50-gallon container. When it was time to bathe, we would take some water out and heat it up. We would take our bucket and fill it up not completely, then add the hot water until it was a reasonable temperature and bathe with that.”
Cowles’s time in the Peace Corps has led him to find ways to conserve as much water as he can. At home Cowles collects the water from his showers and uses it to water his plants and wash dishes.
“When my kids take a shower, I capture the water and pump it out to my yard to water plants,” Cowles said. “I also keep a bucket of bath water near the sink to rinse and wash the dishes. When it’s time for me to take the bucket bath, I usually take the bucket bath during the weekend because I am doing yard work and then once the school week begins, then I go water-free.”
Going water-free can affect more than just the participants. Cowles’s family is really supportive of him during the shower strike.
“Usually my kids like to take a couple of bucket baths during the week to participate like dad, which is a lot of fun,” Cowles said. “My wife is a big supporter, but she doesn’t necessarily participate in the strike primarily because she is helping everyone else with the strike.”
Last year the PALS raised more than $5,000 alone, and were able to increase their grand total to $12,000 when an anonymous donor agreed to match all of the money being raised by the McCallum team. Senior PALS member Sarah Kay Stephens is participating in the shower strike again for a second year.
“Last year I participated in the shower strike, and it was very eye-opening to see how water affects our everyday life and how much we utilized the running water that we are blessed with in this country,” Stephens said. “It is interesting to experience a different perspective and not have running water, so I decided to do it again.”
Cowles’s main goal for the shower strike is to spread awareness about water scarcity, which is a point that has certainly hit home for Stephens.
“Every time I take a shower I am conscious of how much water is going down the drain,” Stephens said. “I used to take 20-minute showers, but now I try to take 10-minute showers. I also turn off the water when I am brushing my teeth and just little things to try and help not use so much water.”
Junior PALS member Chloe Shields is participating in her first shower strike and is looking forward to working towards the cause.
“Well Aware is super awesome, and I’ve never done something like this before so it was a kind of a “go for it” thing,” Shields said. “But I love my showers because they are my favorite part of the day. The thought that I won’t be as clean as I want to be is definitely on my mind, but it’s OK [because] it’s for a good cause.”
At the end of the day Cowles said that ultimately doing the strike not only makes people water aware but also benefits Well Aware.
“It’s a cause that I know is doing excellent work,” Cowles said, “and any money that we raise really does make a huge difference in the lives of the East Africans.”