Being the Change

A NASA researcher builds playgrounds

by Jan Gillis ('07)

Dan Irwin ('90) has a strong committent to both his work and hobby

Dan Irwin ('90) has a strong committent to both his work and hobby
By Margie Shetterly

And, Guatemalan communities devastated by Hurricane Stan in 2005 who were able to get quick satellite imaging of remote areas so they could assess the damage and get relief to affected areas quickly think so too.Dan Irwin ('90) — dedicated NASA researcher by day, working to monitor environmental changes and provide real time information to regions in Central America hit by natural disasters. Advocate and playground builder/promoter for Guatemala's children by night, weekend and any other snippet of spare time. Sound like a new superhero? The kids in Guatemala's San Andres community think so.

But Irwin, with his boundless enthusiasm and energy, would beg to differ. He would tell you that he's simply a guy who's committed to his job and passionate about what he does in his spare time. "Where some people have hobbies like golf, my hobby is community development in Central America. That's what I enjoy doing."

Perhaps his commitment is so strong because he sees such a need in both his work and his hobby.

SERVIR helps scientists and authorities

Irwin, a computer information systems graduate, works at the National Space Science and Technology Center, part of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. For the last several years, his focus has been working with fellow NASA researcher Tom Sever to develop a regional environmental visualization and monitoring system known by the Spanish acronym SERVIR. The system, which helps scientists and authorities in southern Mexico and Central American countries identify sudden changes in environmental conditions, can provide satellite imaging and mapping details of environmental events such as tropical storms, hurricanes, toxic algae "red tides," forest fires and the climatic effects of deforestation.

SERVIR was officially launched in February 2005 with the opening of the regional SERVIR facility in Panama. The facility at Huntsville serves as the test bed research facility, Irwin says, while the Panama site serves as the system's operational facility. Irwin splits his time between the two locations.

Hurricane Stan puts system to the test

While the opening of the Panama facility was viewed as a huge step toward helping the nations of Central America react quickly to the effects of natural and environmental disasters, the region got a firsthand look at just how useful the system was in the fall of 2005 when Hurricane Stan blasted through the region, decimating Guatemala, killing 2,000 people there and leaving 200,000 homeless.

During that storm, the worst hurricane to hit the region since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, SERVIR was one of the main disaster information providers. Using satellite imaging, SERVIR was able to map out areas hardest hit, identifying bridges and roads that were out and communities that were stranded. Combined with information on the ground, SERVIR was able to pinpoint specific areas and provide the information rescuers and relief organizations needed to respond within hours.

Global possibilities

Today, SERVIR is a key component in the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, a cooperative effort between the United States and developing nations designed to unite the countless informational and imaging systems worldwide into one compatible network and enhance the collection and distribution of environmental and disaster-related information.

As a component of GEOSS, SERVIR has a potentially global outreach, Irwin says. The challenge is to keep the system manageable and effective. "We don't want to get too wide and too thin," Irwin says.

Finding a second home

While his work with NASA focuses on the environmental reporting needs of the region, Irwin's philanthropy work is aimed at the hearts of Guatemala's children.

Initially, his efforts at playground construction focused on what has become his second home, the Guatemalan community of San Andres. Irwin first came to Guatemala and specifically San Andres in 1993 to map local forests as part of an effort to develop geographic information systems and train local researchers to use remote sensing technologies.

There he met his future wife, Julieta Puga, and the two were married near San Andres in 1996. The more time he spent in San Andres, the more Irwin noticed a social dilemma — "there were so few things for the kids to do." The town's one playground was falling apart, and there was no library or recreation center for the children.

Viva la Selva — The Forest Lives

So, with the same determination and energy that he applied to SERVIR, Irwin and some partners, supported by donations and a grant, launched into a project in 1999 to build the "Viva la Selva" (The Forest Lives) children's library. Then in 2004, Irwin spearheaded another project — a community playground. Tapping into the state of Alabama's existing relationship with Guatemala through the Partners of the Americas program and securing $7,000 in donations, Irwin teamed with Guatemalan craftsman Tito Chi, playground designers Leathers and Associates, based in New York, and countless community residents who volunteered to build the playground in San Andres.

That initial playground project also included the help and support from his own family — his wife and two daughters, 17 and 7. "The seven-year-old, she does a lot of the (playground) testing," Irwin laughs.

Community ownership

Irwin is adamant that the San Andres playground, and others that are planned for six different communities in Guatemala, are not charity — they are community development fueled by community ownership and involvement. "We're not coming down to do it for them (the community residents). Volunteers from the community are working on it, have ownership in it. There's an awful lot to be said for the feeling of satisfaction that comes from seeing the results of your own hard work."

That ownership particularly extends to the children of these communities. "A lot of the design is actually working with the kids, getting them to dream about what the playground will be like, what they would like. It's wonderful when they can get involved too."

A renewed community spirit

Perhaps the spinoffs from the playground have been the biggest surprise for Irwin. "It's remarkable. What that playground has done is revive parts of the community that had just been abandoned." The city park, once overgrown and in disrepair, now teems with activity as families picnic by the playground, vendors sell ice cream and food, and the whole area radiates with a spirit of community pride.

Of the six upcoming projects, the largest is a playground for Jan Jose, a community of 3,000 that is the only remaining Mayan community in northern Guatemala from the classic golden age of the Mayans. Irwin is teaming with Leathers and Associates for this project, which will be designed like a Mayan temple with jaguars and other jungle animals. Irwin is in the process of raising $40,000 for materials. Construction is set for the last week in February 2007, so it will be ready for dedication at the annual fair in San Jose in March. The wood for the project, all local, is being cut now; and Irwin anticipates that more than 1,000 volunteers will lend a hand.

Irwin's role in the process has shifted somewhat — from actual construction to primarily providing logistics and support, while Chi has "now become the local expert for the other six" playground projects.

Finding time to do it all

So how does Irwin manage it all — a full-time, demanding job and an even more demanding hobby plus being a husband and father? " It certainly helps to be able to have the family buy into this," Irwin laughs. "Part of it is efficient use of time. Life is a balance. Family time and doing things with them are as important as anything else." And, oh yeah, "I drink a lot of coffee. Sleep and rest are the few things that do suffer."

However, what he may occasionally sacrifice in sleep he more than makes up for in motivation. "There's nothing like the sound of children playing in a playground."

Published: Sunday, July 1, 2012

Last Updated: Tuesday, February 27, 2018

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