SAN DIEGO, Calif. (NEWS 8) - Before the sun rises, Water Station volunteers from San Diego and as far as Los Angeles travel to the desert 100 miles east of San Diego.
Their mission is to save lives – the lives of those who brave the hot desert temperatures looking for a better way of life.
Since 2000, the Water Station has been deploying and maintaining water stations in the Southern California desert, including: Imperial Valley, Anza Borrego Park and surrounding areas.
John Hunter is the founder of the San Diego-based nonprofit. His wife, Laura Hunter (both met in 2000 when she first began to volunteer), served as the organization's former president.
"I founded this organization back in 2001, because in those days there were a lot of people dying in this area, between here and Yuma," said John.
John and his group of volunteers begin their work each year in the month of March by installing water stations throughout the desert region.
The stations are blue barrels with orange and blue flags (for easy visibility), and are placed along Highway 98 and other parts of the desert.
Inside each blue barrel are six gallons of potable water.
The location of water stations is determined by data provided by the coroner's office on where bodies have been found.
"Typically they find a person here, here and here and I would look below that and try and put the stations half a mile south because, typically, they [undocumented immigrants] are mostly coming from the south,” said John.
John says the stations are placed about a third of a mile apart from each other. Currently they have about 150 stations, down from 350 when the project first began. The organization said it needs thousands of stations.
According to the Water Station, on any given year, 20 Americans and undocumented immigrants die in the desert region - where temperatures can reach 125 degrees - making water imperative for survival.
Throughout the hot summer months, two Saturdays a month, volunteers travel to the desert to replenish water supplies and repair those that may have fallen victim to the elements or vandalism.
"The federal government should have been doing this a long time ago but it was a hot potato. I would have stuck 1,000, 2,000 [water stations] if it had been me with federal funding, but we are based on volunteers. It's been a bunch of good-hearted people," said John.
If the last name Hunter sounds familiar it's because John comes from a politically active family.
His brother is former congressman Duncan l. Hunter who served for 14 terms in Congress.
In 2008, his nephew, Duncan D. Hunter, succeeded his father to represent California’s 50th Congressional District (consisting of east and northern county San Diego).
Despite his family's tough stance on undocumented immigrants and illegal immigration, for John, the politics of it all is irrelevant.
"I have really great family members but we are pretty much independent. We sort of have our own ideas on what to do. I like all my family members,” he said.
While some argue the Water Station encourages undocumented immigrants to the cross the border, John and his team said the opposite is true. In fact, they discourage the dangerous journey.
"We are not trying to lure anybody trying to come across [...] We are just trying to stop people from dying. This is not about immigration. This is about life and death and we are just trying to stop those deaths,” said Laura Hunter.
For Rob Fryer, who has been volunteering since the Water Station's early days, it's a non-partisan, non-religious issue.
"I believe in borders, but I don't believe in having our neighbors dying in the desert. If you look around here there is very little shade, not a lot of rain. The walking looks easy, but if the sun comes up you're in danger - life is in danger," he said.
According to Pedro Rios, a volunteer who works with the American Friends Service Committee, immigration is down historically but the number of people that are dying trying to cross into the U.S., continues to increase.
“This work is fundamental to saving lives and consequently not only migrant lives are being saved, hikers and people who find themselves stranded in the desert are also benefiting from the water stations,” he said.
If found by a Water Station volunteer, undocumented immigrants are given three choices: 1) Ask them if they want to go back to Mexico, in which case Border Patrol would be called 2) Transport them to a hospital should they need medical attention and 3) Leave them where they were found.
The top priority, said John, is to save their life by giving him or her water, put them in the shade and give them food/ medical attention if needed.
"First of all, our number one priority is save their life. We don't care what the rules are - it's irrelevant," said John.
Over the past 18 years, the organization has survived based on the hard work of its volunteers while receiving few donations along the way.
"We have permits so we are not breaking the law. We have people from all walks of life helping us. We have atheists, we have gays, we have liberals, we have Democrats, we have Republicans - so all of us have the same goal - to stop these heat-related deaths," said Laura.
John says it can take up to $30,000 a year to install and maintain the water stations.
"We are 95 percent action -oriented and we really don't care what people think about us. We don't try and raise a lot of money - just enough to survive," said John.
For other volunteers like Jose Sandoval, besides being a bonding experience with his father, the organization's work hits close to home.
"My uncle had crossed through these areas, so it kind of hit close to home when he told me about that so that inspired me to come and help other people like us that come over that want a better life and help them survive at least the journey,” said Sandoval.
If you would like to sign up as a volunteer or donate to the organization, visit the Water Station website.