What is Life For?

“I woke up on a vacation in Uruguay at 28, thinking I was the worst person in the world,” says Scott

Scott Harrison, founder of Charity:Water

Scott Harrison, founder of Charity:Water

Harrison, who had spent 10 years promoting clubs and parties, and himself consuming every vice there is “short of heroin.”

So 13 years ago, “I sold all of my possessions, 2,000 music CDs in a single lot on ebay and went on a drive in New England with a Bible, a carton of cigarettes, and a bottle of Dewars.” The change in his life happened by degrees. Soon it was more Bible and no cigarettes or Dewars. From an internet cafe in Maine he applied to do service work in the third world and was turned down everywhere.

The skills of a club promoter, it seemed, were not so useful to non-profits.

Finally, he got a job with Mercy Ships based in Liberia, then the poorest country in the world, which provides health care to the poorest of the poor and gave him the privilege of working as a photographer for $500 a month.  As in, he would pay THEM the $500. And his life was never the same.

The morning after the election I’m having breakfast with Scott Harrison, founder of Charity: Water at The Battery Club in San Francisco. Last month I got to see their work on the ground in Ethiopia. One and a half million people in Ethiopia now have clean water because of the organization, which provides clean water for over 6 million people in 24 countries. Wells are managed locally and have sensors that report back that they are working. Each community maintains a savings account–families pay about 20 cents a month to access a well–that pays for any repairs. I also got to see what it’s like for people who do not have access to water. I walked along for 45 minutes to a filthy riverbed, to scoop sandy parasite-filled water into a jerry can. The woman doing it had a large goiter on the side of her neck from lack of iodine.

Charity:Water works with local partners who do the actual work and are absolutely fanatic about ethics and oversight in funds. In fact they have left places where bribes are required to bring in materials as they just won’t do it. “Who manages the repair account?” our leader asked in one village.  The local priest pulled the savings book from his robes for inspection.

“Everyone in this country has safe water,” says Scott as he describes the purity of the mission to bring water to those who don’t have it. “Even poor people in Appalachia have water to drink.” No one here has to watch children die of parasites of dysentery.

With other charitable missions, even education or health care, there can be suspicion about motives. Why are you educating someone? What, exactly are you teaching? Water, though, is clean. Pure.

What an appealing notion after the messiness of the last months and election recriminations still in the air.

Collecting fresh water last month in Ethiopia. The rectangle under the spout is a sensor that reports back whether the pump is working.

Collecting fresh water last month in Ethiopia. The rectangle under the spout is a sensor that reports back whether the pump is working.


About Karen Ray

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