Derek Cheatham on Kenyan mission trip to build water system: ‘It was an Amazing Experience!’

JACKSON, Miss. (February 22, 2023) – One of Neel-Schaffer’s founding tenets is to serve the communities where our employees live and work. One employee, North Texas Operations Manager Derek Cheatham, PE, has taken that philosophy to another level, or to another continent, to be exact.

Derek has twice made mission trips to Africa as part of Engineering Ministries International (eMi), a Christian non-profit organization comprised of engineers, architects, surveyors, and construction managers. Founded in 1982, eMi’s worldwide mission is to develop people, design structures, and construct facilities that serve communities and the Church. Together, eMi staff and their volunteer network is designing a world of hope.

Derek made his first trip in 2015 to Ethiopia and his second in October 2022 to Kenya.

When we asked Derek to share his story, he told us:

On the Ethiopia trip, the civil engineer role was already filled so I volunteered as the project surveyor. It was a great trip where I was part of a large multi-disciplined team tasked with providing a community master plan for a new school facility and medical clinic. I remember coming back home and thinking about plans for one trip a year.

I kept up with eMi over the years, occasionally checking on project trips on their website. It took seven years (thanks partially to COVID), but I finally was able to make Trip No. 2.  In 2022, I found a mission that seemed like the perfect fit – a project to design a water system for the Kisumu Community Water System in Kenya.

For the project, eMI would be working with Living Waters Service Center (LWSC), and that LWSC had “partnered with the County Government of Kisumu to build a new pipe network with communal water kiosks and a new storage reservoir for 13,000 people.”

The scope of our project was to design a water distribution system that included a pipeline alignment that would traverse a 20-meter cliff. There is an existing water tank and distribution system on top of the cliff, providing water to the upper community. There is an additional community of 4,000 (projected growth up to 13,000) in the lower valley that only has access to springs, with intermittent supply.

With my background in water system modeling, distribution pipeline design, and water storage tanks, I felt an immediate connection. The idea of serving for a few weeks, providing some design support once back home, with the benefit of potentially serving 13,000, sounded awesome!

I committed to go just a few weeks before the October trip. As with the first trip, it was an amazing experience, one felt by thousands of volunteers on eMi work trips since 1982. I’m sharing this story, hoping others may look for opportunities to GO on a future eMi or a similar ministry trip and serve by utilizing your professional skills and experience.

The eMi design team’s scope on my trip was to determine the best options and cost estimates for constructing a pipeline down the cliff and also a distribution system within the lower community that will provide reliable pressure and flow. Currently, we are finalizing the design and a deliverable report. As funding is secured, construction may begin as early as this summer.

The local government and county water system (KIWASCO) was incredibly supportive of the eMi team and Living Water International. We had initial meetings and a final presentation of the preliminary findings at the deputy governors’ office. It was a beautiful example of a collaboration: local government leaders, local water system engineers, an exceptional partnering ministry in Living Water, and a great eMi team coming together to serve. The recurrent message from the community leaders is “Water is Life.”


Derek Cheatham, PE, is a Senior Vice President with Neel-Schaffer. He manages the firm’s North Texas Operations, with offices in Arlington, Dallas, and Fort Worth. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas-Arlington and has nearly 30 years of professional experience. As an active member of the eMi Network, Derek welcomes the opportunity to discuss eMi and answer questions about serving on future trips. Reach him at