We all learn that water is necessary for life. Nevertheless, a November 2006 report from the United Nations possibly surprised many readers when it revealed that a lack of access to clean water kills nearly two million children a year. The U.N.’s recent Human Development Report stated that nearly 2.6 billion people worldwide do not have access to clean water and proper sanitation—a situation that claims more lives than more highly-publicized problems such as AIDS or violent political conflicts.
The report also explained that the problem is not due to any scarcity of this precious resource: it is due to a lack of political and social commitment to solving the problem. That is, the governments of the countries affected either cannot or will not take the crisis seriously.
A boy with a big heart
One boy has been trying to do something about this problem for some time now. It was almost exactly nine years ago that a first-grade student at Holy Cross School near Ottawa, Canada, heard his teacher talk about the sad conditions under which many children in Africa live. They lack food, medicine and many other things. She explained that a single penny would buy a pencil; 25 cents, 175 vitamins; 60 cents, a two-month supply of medicine for one child; “and $70 pays for a water well.”
Ryan Hreljac was surprised to hear about the scarcity of water wells in Africa and how that affects the everyday lives of children and families there. He went home that day and began thinking about how he could help these people so far away.
Although he didn’t know it, he was developing a sense of what the Church calls “solidarity.” Solidarity is a virtue related to responsibility and charity. It is born of the awareness that each of us shares responsibility for the dignity of our neighbor. But solidarity is not a vague feeling of sorrow that people are suffering. It is an active virtue. It is a determination to do something for the good of others. It is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church)
Ryan’s determination was tested right away. He found out that the cost of digging one water well was about $70. So he asked his parents if he could do extra chores in order to earn that amount. Both Ryan’s parents work (his dad is a police officer), so there was no question of simply handing him the money. But his parents agreed to let him earn it, thinking he would get tired of the effort. It took Ryan four months but with a little help from some other family members and friends, he finally raked enough leaves and took out enough trash to reach the full amount.
Meeting the challenge
His mom had no idea what organization might use the money to dig a well. A friend alerted her to a group in Canada called WaterCan and she called them. A staff person informed Ryan’s mom that $70 would buy a small water pump but the cost of drilling and finishing a full water well was closer to $2,000.
Ryan was not discouraged. He discovered that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) would match WaterCan’s funds on a two-to-one basis (a good example of the first definition of solidarity), which meant that Ryan still had about $700 to go. He began emailing family friends and before long the $700 was pledged.
The power of one
Ryan went to a meeting of WaterCan officials to deliver his funds and a reporter from the Ottawa Citizen wrote a story on Ryan’s efforts, which started a wave of publicity and interest from around Canada and beyond. Before long, Ryan had gathered enough money for a second well to be dug in the African country of Uganda (where most of the population does not have access to clean water).
Ryan’s teacher realized that his ability to inspire other people to compassionate action was a rare quality. She decided to help Ryan organize efforts toward drilling another well in Uganda and even began a pen-pal project with a Ugandan school.
Ryan’s project was now drawing national media attention and more donations were rolling in. His entire school was now behind the project, hosting hike-a-thons and other activities to raise money.
Bridges of friendship
The Ugandan school sent a batch of pen-pal letters to Ryan’s school in January 1999. Ryan received one that read as follows: Dear Ryan, my name is Akana Jimmy. I am 8 years old. I like soccer. Our house is made of grass. How is America? Your friend, Akana Jimmy. With letter was a photo of Jimmy. Ryan immediately wrote Jimmy back and decided he would go meet him when they were both twelve.
Friends in the area continued to help publicize Ryan’s efforts and even helped contribute frequent flyer miles so that he could fly to Uganda to see his finished well in July 2000. His trip turned out to be a kind of celebration in the little Ugandan village of Angolo, where literally thousands of children met Ryan changing his name. Village elders led Ryan and his group to the new well located next to the village school. Ryan met his pen-pal Jimmy and cut the ribbon, after which there was several hours of dancing and festivities. A documentary filmmaker was along for the trip and recorded the event in a film called Ryan’s Well, broadcast on Canadian television and worldwide thereafter.
A photo of Ryan and his Ugandan friend Jimmy appeared on the cover of a January 2001 issue of Reader’s Digest. An update on the story appeared in the same magazine in 2005: Jimmy Akana had come to Canada to be a new member of Ryan’s family. It took three years of cutting through Ugandan red tape. At one point, Jimmy was even abducted by an enemy tribe and had to escape! But by adoption, the two pen-pals were now brothers.
The project continues
According to the latest numbers on the Ryan’s Well Foundation website (www.ryanswell.ca), Ryan and his supporters have now raised $1.5 million toward building clean water wells in Africa and elsewhere. Since Ryan’s first well, almost 250 more have now been built, in direct benefit to around 400,000 people in eleven countries.
“I’m just a normal boy,” Ryan says when anyone asks about his achievements. After all, he plays soccer, basketball and hockey. He enjoys reading, playing Nintendo and swimming as well.
Ryan’s entire family and numerous friends have now become involved in his relief activities. His project has inspired young people around the world and has earned him meetings with the Prince of Wales, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Oprah Winfrey, and numerous other famous names. He has traveled to Japan, Australia, Italy, South Africa and Uganda.
Focused on the mission
Celebrities don’t seem to make Ryan nervous, however. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a doctor, the president, or a seventh-grader,” he says. “God has given all people a chance to make a difference.” In fact, “Making a Difference in the World” is the slogan of Ryan’s foundation.
Perhaps Ryan’s greatest honor occurred in October 2003, during the late Pope John Paul II’s 25th anniversary Mass in Rome. Ryan was one of only fifteen people—and the only young person—to receive Communion from the Pope, the one celebrity before whom he has felt the jitters, he remarked.
Asked about his personal mission, Ryan recently told a newspaper reporter, “God doesn’t do anything without a reason. God put each of us on this earth for a reason. We’re all born with a piece of the puzzle: my piece of the puzzle is clean water…I dream of the day when everyone in Africa has clean water.”
Leadership in service
Sometimes we can be tempted to think that the problems of the world are too big for us to affect. Ryan’s example teaches us that one person can make a difference. He shows us that real leadership is exercised by personal commitment. When someone shows commitment and dedication he or she often inspires others to make an impact as well.
Our faith also tells us that every person we help has infinite value in the eyes of God. It is precisely this awareness of the value of every human being which has made Christianity such a powerful promoter of good in the world. It is the awareness of God’s personal love for each person that has inspired so many saints to be truly heroic in their charity.
The world today needs a fresh infusion of Christian charity. It needs new saints. We can be these saints. We can begin by drawing close to God’s love. We can continue by sharing that love with others. We all must look around us and find ways to bring that love to our fellow human beings.