Cathy Leslie, executive director of EWB-USA, recently sat down with Brown and Caldwell's Courtney Boyle to talk about the need for water professionals to help out in big and small ways, and how a volunteer trip turned into her full-time dream job.

MAY 20, 2014

What do you think is EWB's greatest attribute, the one that sets it apart from other similar organizations?
It's our members who want to give back in a way that makes sense with their technical expertise, and who really want to assist others who are less fortunate.

How can the water industry support EWB?
Water is about 60 percent of our project portfolio and it is a significant need worldwide. So water professionals who get involved can make a huge impact within EWB, whether that is directly volunteering for a project, reviewing a project to make sure it is appropriate in the climate, culture and environment it goes into, or funding to support a water project. I think water professionals can play a huge role in solving some of the issues out there.

Tell us a little bit about the new Community Engineering Corps (CEC) and how water professionals can get involved with that.
The CEC was launched earlier this year and it is a collaboration between ASCE, AWWA and EWB-USA as a way to serve developing communities here in the United States. There are a lot of organizations out there, nonprofits, non-governmental organizations and even governmental organizations, that don't have access or funding to obtain technical expertise.

This is a way that organizations can come to us and request a certain type of professional to assist them in a project. So we're really leveraging the technical expertise of our members for the good of other organizations in addition to the communities that we already serve.

So is this a way for more senior professionals to get involved in EWB?
Absolutely. Our core Community-Driven Development model is great but it's a very time-intensive model because it is a five-year commitment. Whereas a CEC project may be a five-hour commitment, in which an organization is in need of a very experienced person's expertise.

What is the greatest challenge ahead for EWB?
I think one of our biggest challenges is to make sure the resources that we have, whether that's volunteer time, staff time, or funding, keeps up with what we can actually do in the communities. As an example, during the recession the funding did not come in at previous levels so we had a lot of really great projects that had been designed but they couldn't get out the door from the chapter because the chapter just didn't have enough money to initiate them.

So it's really making sure, as you say in a restaurant, that your eyes aren't bigger than your stomach. There are lots of great intentions in this organization but unfortunately sometimes you have to wait for time and money to catch up with those.

How did you find yourself in the role of executive director for EWB-USA?
I actually got involved in 2003 as a professional mentor on the second EWB project and ended up taking 14 students to Mali, West Africa. I just loved the organization so I got involved with some of the early review teams, then not too much later they were looking for someone to lead the organization and I volunteered.

I really believed in the things EWB was doing and I really believed in its mission. I really thought about the impact this organization could make, and so I stepped up to the plate. I was the volunteer executive director from 2003 to 2008 and I have been paid since 2008. I love EWB. You couldn't ask for a better job than what I have.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?
I just love the conversations about what our members are up to, and some of the innovative things they're coming up with. You know they never cease to amaze me, how creative our members are.

For me there are two rewards and it really ties back to our mission. I love to see a community that, you know, they have the infrastructure, they know how to operate it, and they know how to maintain it. And then I see this project team and they've learned so much and they're so happy that they were able to make a difference. It's just this great relationship with a great impact. I like to hear about the full-blown experience.


Name: Cathy Leslie

Title: Executive Director, Engineers Without Borders

Involvement: Cathy has served as the executive director of EWB-USA since 2004. She oversees the operations and finances of the organization and is responsible for the consistent achievement of EWB's mission.

Experience: Cathy began her work in developing countries as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Nepal. During her station, she developed and implemented solutions that addressed drinking water and sanitation issues facing the community. In addition to her work in the international sustainable development field, Cathy has more than 20 years' experience overseeing both domestic and international corporate engineering projects. She bridges her skills and experience as a professional engineer with her commitment to the creation of sustainable and participatory solutions to rural community development projects.

Credentials: B.S.C.E., Michigan Technological University Registered Professional Engineer, State of Colorado.

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