Amelia Lyons caught the travel bug young. She traveled to Costa Rica in middle school and built houses in Mexico on a high school trip. In college and graduate school, she traveled to Papua New Guinea and Nepal, among other places.
"When I was a kid, I remember saying that I wanted to meet every person in the world," said Lyons, who grew up in Piedmont and Berkeley after her parents divorced.
"I've done a pretty good job of meeting quite a few of them," she said, laughing.
Ultimately, her interests led her to northern Uganda, a country just now recovering from two decades of war. She is spending a year working on water-sanitation projects for people returning from refugee camps to their home villages, which often lack potable water.
In her current position as a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Program Manager for the humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger, Lyons manages about 20 people and works on projects such as drilling new wells, installing hand pumps, building structures to protect natural springs from contamination and training others in hygiene promotion.
Her work is sponsored by Action Against Hunger because "there are direct links between malnourishment and hygiene," said Lyons. Malnourished people are especially vulnerable to diseases caught from contaminated water and inadequate hygiene, such as having no access to a latrine, she said.
The pace of work in rural Uganda is very different from the United States, said Lyons. "One of the biggest challenges is adjusting to not having everything happen in an efficient manner," she said.
"A lot of it is just social differences," Lyons explained. When people are struggling to provide food for their family each day, it's hard for them to think about the future, even the immediate future, she said. This makes it difficult to convince them to invest in items such as water filters, whose health benefits might not be immediately visible. "It's a slow process" to make change, Lyons said.
After graduating from high school in Piedmont, Lyons paid her way though UC Santa Cruz, where she studied geology. Always interested in helping people, Lyons then went on to earn a master's degree in environmental engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The program emphasized engineering for developing communities.
In graduate school, she joined Engineers Without Borders, a nonprofit group that works on engineering projects in the developing world. While she was in graduate school, Lyons traveled to Nepal three times to work on water engineering projects. After graduation, a job offer from Action Against Hunger gave her a chance to use her skills abroad again.
Lyons would like to see more young people get involved in international development work, which she finds challenging and rewarding. With so many development groups and nongovernmental organizations to choose from, "it's really easy to get involved," she said.
The Engineers Without Borders program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, sends some students to Nepal each year, "and once they get there, they're hooked," said Lyons. "None of those guys who went this summer to Nepal are ever going to stop now."
On her second day in Uganda, before she had done anything yet, she said, a villager thanked her for bringing water to the village. "To see that and to feel that -- that's really what motivates me," she said. "To see that I am having some sort of impact on the lives of people."