A couple weeks ago, I was asked to facilitate an ice breaker activity for the Ward Street/Manchester Youth Rally and wound up inventing a game in which our youth had an opportunity to win $40 of my money. However, I wanted to raise the bar a bit, so before putting my cash on the line, I decided to do a little research on what $40 could actually do to help someone in need. I stumbled into finding out about Charity: Water and discovered that just $20 can provide one person with clean drinking for 20 years! In under three days, we raised $500, including donations from the kids who won the cash prizes, translating into clean drinking water for 25 people for the next two decades. I wanted to share what I’ve learned about Charity: Water in hope that as we reflect on our abundant blessings, we can give at least $20 to help others simply live.

Scott Harrison, 35, came to New York City at the age of 18 as an act of rebellion. He felt he had spent his childhood serving others, particularly in caring for his severely ill mother who was poisoned by carbon monoxide when Scott was just four years old, and now it was time to serve himself. It wasn’t long before Scott, immensely talented, landed a gig as a “night club promoter” in which he was paid over $4000 a month to drink Budweiser and Bacardi at clubs on a nightly basis while selling more expensive alcohol to models and hedge fund managers. A decade after his arrival to the Big Apple, Scott was living the high life and at age 28 found himself on an expensive drug laden vacation on a beach in Uruguay complete with personal servants. But in a search for deeper meaning in life, Scott had began to study theology and there in Uruguay he experienced a “crisis of conscience” also finding himself a “pretentious jerk” and a “the most selfish, sycophantic and miserable human being.” Scott decided to return to his Christian heritage and felt the Gospel was calling him to a life of service dedicated to the poor.

In October 2004, Scott quit his high paying night club job in favor of a volunteer position for Mercy Ships, a non-profit floating hospital carrying skilled surgeons to the coast of West Africa, in which he actually had to pay $500 a month to cover the cost of his living expenses. He traveled to Liberia as a photojournalist, taking pictures of people who came to the Mercy Ships doctors using their vacation time to perform free surgeries for people suffering from giant facial tumors, flesh eating diseases, severe burns, cleft lips and cleft palates. It was in Liberia that Scott took a picture of and then got to know a boy named Alfred who was literally suffocating from his own face due to a giant tumor. Scott got his first taste of dirty drinking water in Liberia and after he saw people drinking from swamps realized that many of the illness suffered by sub-Saharan Africans can be traced to the lack of access to clean drinking water. In fact, an astounding 88 percent of disease on the planet is directly related to unsafe water and lack of sanitation and one billion people on this planet (1 in 6) do not have access to clean water.

In one year, 40 billion hours in Africa are spent walking to and collecting water, surpassing the work hours that the entire French economy produces annually. Children begin carrying water at age five and bend their spines carrying 40 pound gas cans, the iPods of Africa, with five gallons of tainted water. Women in Northern Uganda wait in lines of up to eight hours on alternate days to get access to water for their families. Not able to afford the coal necessary to boil the swampy waters, they use their dresses as strainers removing some of the sludge, but none of the contaminants such as e.coli, salmonella, cholera and Hepatitis A. People are dying from diarrhea, dysentery, parasites and typhoid.

It was then that Scott Harrison began to think about water as a luxury. He returned to New York City, where someone bought him a $16 margarita and he couldn’t stop thinking about how that same $16 in Africa could feed a family of four for a month. He discovered Americans use 150 gallons of water per person per day, whereas one billion people don’t have access to even 5 gallons, or 1/30th, of that daily figure. At first he experienced a righteous indignation at the disparity, but quickly realized that within this cognitive dissonance lay opportunity. With no money, but a few idealistic friends, supporters and a web designer, Scott launched Charity: Water, a non-profit aimed at ensuring clean drinking water is available to the entire world.

But his ambition didn’t end there. Scott believed the reason many people, young and old alike, were not giving to charity was because they were unsure how much of their money was being used to actually help people. So, Scott took a risk and committed to a business principle in which 100% of public donations would be used to build wells and get fresh water to people who need it. He would use private and corporate donors to fund his staff and operating costs. The venture nearly failed in 2008 when they were raising money for wells, but ran out of cash for payroll, but Michael Birch, founder of the social networking site bebo.com, generously donated $1 million, buying time to flush out the business plan which has now created a sustainable model that ensures 100% of public donations, your donations, go to help people without water.

The money raised goes toward drilling wells up to $12,000 feet, hand digging wells, protecting sources of mountain spring water, filtering arsenic and other poisons from water supplies, creating rainwater catchment systems and teaching local peoples how to maintain their wells. A typical well costs $5,000 and provides water for over 250 people. The pumps provide a gas can’s five gallons of clean water every 90 seconds and can produce the equivalent of 7 million bottles of Poland Spring every year. For many of the wells, community members contribute their labor digging for six weeks taking ownership of their project.

In short, water changes everything. Water brings hope and life into communities by restoring dignity and time. Health and disease rates plummet once safe water becomes available, and Charity: Water is making it happen. In just four years, over $20 million has been raised through over 100,000 donations providing one million people with safe water. There are over 2,500 water projects that have been completed or are in progress partnering with 22 third world communities thus far and all of this is being tracked using GPS and Google Earth. But there is still so much more to do.

Harrison figured out that if this clean water crisis was measured in time, that the one million people helped thus far would represent only the first 12 days of a 32 year problem. We’ve got a long way to go. But if not us, who? If not now, when?

Every September, Charity: Water asks people to give up their birthdays by foregoing parties and gifts and raising money for the poor of the world. A seven year old child recently gave up his birthday and was able to raise $22,000. Celebrities have gotten inspired as well as demonstrated by Alyssa Milano who raised $92,000 by giving up her 37th birthday. One mom from Iowa, Jodie Landers, was able to raise $300,000 from her church and town. People are raising money by walking across America, running marathons, growing beards out, swimming for charity, playing benefit concerts and your creativity and energy can add to this list. This story began with Scott Harrison, but it is becoming our story one donation at a time, one well at a time.

Check out these videos and the website for more information:

Charity: Water Videos.

  1. This is a powerful article. I have seen the impact of well-drilling in Africa in both Ghana and Kenya. Well-drilling and compassionate care in NE Ghana opened a Muslim area to hearing the Gospel with the eventual planting of many churches.

  2. Randy says:

    Wow! I had heard that this was being done but didn’t realize what the actual impact was. Harrison’s story needs to be heard. Thanks for bringing to light a way to give back
    and show thankfulness for what we have by helping those who dont. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

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