I first heard about Water 1st two years ago when I received an invitation for a fundraiser. Although I didn’t attend, I sent a small donation, since it seemed like a worthy cause, and went about my business. With the constant barrage of requests for money, it’s difficult to decide which ones are most important and will provide the greatest value. It’s even more difficult when it’s an international organization. How was I to know whether the poor people in these remote villages would even benefit from the money I sent? Would the money I sent just go to pad the pockets of some corrupt government official?

Last year when I received an invite to the Seattle Water 1st annual fundraiser at Benaroya Hall, I decided it was time to learn more. After reading their website and seeing their video, I was deeply moved. With all the technology and wealth of resources in this world, it was astounding to me to learn that there are still people in this world who have to spend 6 hours a day walking back and forth to a filthy, worm invested watering hole for water, a resource we take for granted. It was even more shocking to discover that small children, like my four year old daughter, have to spend their entire day engaged in this back-breaking task. I was so moved by what I had learned that I wanted to see it first hand.

I thought I was going to Ethiopia for a cultural experience, but it turned out to be a life changing one. After seeing the faces of the people in these villages, and watching the woman and children walk to and from watering holes carrying heavy containers of water on their backs, my life was forever changed. No longer could I look at this as someone else’s problem, it was now my problem too. It’s both heart breaking and encouraging to know that for as little as $60 to $100 a person, which is what we spend on a night out, the quality of someone’s life can be greatly improved.

Ethiopia is a fascinating place to explore. To me, it almost feels like uncharted territory, which makes it all the more exciting. I was amazed at how few tourists we saw throughout our trip. I loved the chaos and energy in Addis Ababa, with all the traffic madness (from lack of signals and signs), street vendors, and people. The open market was overwhelming, but exciting, with its row after row of everything imaginable for sale. My favorite part of the trip was traveling to the villages. I loved the arid pastoral landscape and meeting the people from the rural villages. There’s a simplicity and sense of community that’s almost spiritual.

Emotionally, the trip was challenging, yet rewarding. It’s difficult to find the words to describe what I saw in Ethiopia. When I hear myself describing the trip to friends and family, I feel I’m not doing it justice. I saw woman and children drinking and bathing in water that we wouldn’t let our animals drink. I saw animals drinking from the same sources as children. Worse yet, I saw a donkey urinating in the water right next to a woman filling her container. The problems related to water are endless. Children are often left at home alone to fend for themselves while their mothers are out fetching water. Children are unable to go to school because they have to spend their days fetching water, herding cattle and tending to other household chores.  There are no schools or medical facilities in these small villages because they can’t get teachers and medical personnel to stay without access to clean water or latrines.  There are no latrines so the villages are breeding grounds for disease. Without latrines, there’s no privacy and consequently, no dignity. Maybe describing the circumstances is enough and hopefully people won’t just listen, but hear what I’m telling them.

The people in these villages are desperately poor. Most of the people we met appeared to have little more than the clothes on their backs. They live in small huts with just a fire pit for cooking and a mattress (if they’re lucky) for sleeping. What I found truly amazing was that even with what little they have, it was apparent that no one was looking for a handout. The communities want water and although they don’t have the financial or technical resources to get it themselves, I can attest that they’re more than eager to do their share by providing the backbreaking physical labor necessary to make it happen. This includes manually digging a pipeline 6 miles long with nothing more than picks and shovels. It’s nothing short of amazing.

One of the most memorable experiences during the trip was when we visited a community, Bishikiltu, that’s still in need of water. Marla was hesitant since she had met with them once before and still could not commit to funding their project. We went with trepidation, not knowing how they would react since Water 1st was still unable to make a financial commitment. I think most of us expected them to be disappointed and angry, but to everyone surprise they were genuinely grateful.  Grateful to know that their village is still in our thoughts, that there’s still hope.  Religion plays a powerful role in these rural villages and they’ve prayed for years that they’re water problems would be solved. Although they have no water yet they feel like their prayers have been answered with our visit. I remember asking myself how they could be so selfless? In the end, we left with the priest’s blessings for not only us, but also our families.

I applaud Marla, Jen and all the people involved with Water 1st. Rarely have I met individuals so genuine and committed to a cause. A cause that saves lives! Equally important are the people I met at Water Action, their partner organization. I was amazed at Water Action’s level of professionalism, accountability and approachability. It’s evident that Water Action has a strong relationship with both Water 1st and the communities it supports, which is why their water projects are successful. Before taking this trip, I knew little to nothing about water projects. After seeing a project in action and meeting members of the communities that benefit from these projects, I have a deeper appreciation for the work Marla and her organization provides. It’s not just about water. It’s about providing water, sanitation and health education. All three components are equally important in order to truly effect change in these communities.

Although pictures and videos help, no one can truly understand the importance of the work Water 1st is doing unless they experience it first-hand. Since most people will not have this opportunity, I feel it’s my duty to help inform and educate friends, family and colleagues in my community. In a sense, I feel like a self-appointed ambassador. I also encourage people to take a trip with Water 1st to see for themselves how we can make a difference.

Many of my friends have asked me about the “life-straw” and I asked Marla about it myself. Why isn’t a straw with a filter that kills bacteria enough? By the end of my trip, it was a moot point. How could we expect people to sip filthy water through a straw that’s only effective for a finite period of time? How could we expect children to use the straws properly? How could we expect people to discard the straws once they were no longer effective? How could we expect them to continue to bathe their children in worm-infested water? The answer to all these questions is we can’t! I’m no expert, but to me the life-straw seems more like a band-aid than a long-term viable solution.

In the end, I feel I made the right decision by donating our money to Water 1st. I’ve seen first-hand that it’s a decision that saves lives. I’m confident that the money I’ve donated is being used judiciously and is benefiting the communities in need. Marla is a devoted and passionate woman with a strong business sense. I’m committed now more than ever to helping Water 1st achieve its goals.