Stories of Community Engagement: James Leitner, Founder of MissionCleanWater

How long does it take for you to get yourself some water to drink at home?

If you’re like me, it’s usually only a few seconds.

In my New York City apartment, I’m usually less than 10 seconds away from a faucet that produces as much clean, drinkable water as I want.

And again, if you’re like me, you’ve probably never even thought about that question. Because in many places, clean water is only one turn of a tap away.

But thanks to James Leitner, access to clean water is something I won’t take for granted ever again.

When he was just 24 years old, James Leitner founded MissionCleanWater, a nonprofit group that takes a community-based approach to developing and building sustainable clean water projects in rural Uganda.

To start fundraising and to build awareness around the issue of clean water, he walked the entire continental US, over 3,250 miles, from New Jersey to California while pulling 10 gallons of water. The walk symbolized how far many people in areas without clean water have to walk every year to fetch water for themselves and their families.

Since then he has done numerous endurance challenges to raise awareness for the issue, all while implementing clean water projects that have helped 4,500 people and 1,500 students gain access to drinking water. With every project, MissionCleanWater focuses on sustainability, working closely with each community to develop solutions together through relationship building, training, and long term investment.

As the second interview in our Stories of Community Engagement Interview Series, I spoke to James about the community-based approach of his work and what he’s doing to raise awareness about the issue of clean water.

Jessica Califano: The first thing that I wanted to ask, which is what I’m asking everyone at the at the start of these interviews, is this: Can you share a recent time, or just a time from your past when you remember feeling like you were an engaged member of a community? When was it and how did it change your perspective on the importance of community?

James Leitner: Good question! So, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of many different communities in different organizational groups that have given me the opportunity to learn how to engage and work with different people.

As someone that wants to facilitate and work with different groups, you really have got to make sure you’re understanding what the best interest is of different organizations. And so I can think a few small key examples that aren’t just based around the world of nonprofit stuff or clean water. 

I went to school at the University of Delaware and graduated in 2015. And during my time there, I joined a community group called the Delaware Food Co Op. We were a student run organization that would visit and work on different farms. As repayment, we would get fruits and vegetables to provide to other community members. 

It was very interesting to be able to engage and talk to different communities close to where our school was, in areas like Newark, Delaware and Wilmington, Delaware. Just by being able to engage and talk with them hear about their issues with nutrition and such, you learn that they really don’t have access to fruits and vegetables. You also learn that you can hand someone a piece of broccoli and even I love broccoli but I still don’t know how to cook with it. So you also get an understanding of how you can better educate people on proper cooking instruments or how to have better accessibility to vegetables and such.

Another example that really helped me start to understand community-based approaches was when I was at the University of Delaware and I was taking a class about assisting and working with communities in the international world. I was the only non-engineer that was assigned to the class. 

And so when it was time to pick different topics, no one really wanted to be on my team because they didn’t think that I would really be able to help their team complete their project. But the one team that did take me—we were actually the only ones to complete our project because they didn’t realize that we can’t just approach things through a technical perspective. 

We need to also make sure we’re working and talking with community officials and working with different organizations to make sure that what we intend to do actually benefits people and is in their favor and common interest.

JC: Let’s dive into your work with MissionCleanWater. One claim that you make on your website is that 60% of clean water projects fail. Can you tell me a little bit more about why that is and what MissionCleanWater is doing differently to prevent that from happening? 

JL: So, you know, that’s a statistic. And I don’t really like to throw statistics very far and wide. But this is something that I have had personal experience with, and learned about through the research that the World Health Organization and other global forums have done.

I think a good way to jump into this is to share that a “water project” is kind of a broad term. It could mean anything from a hand pump, to rainwater collection, to the protection of lakes and rivers to provide better drinking water, or the kind of the work that we typically do, which is wider water distribution that is much more project specific.

In my previous experiences, before working on developing MissionCleanWater, I would spend time in countries like Kenya and Tanzania. And driving around you see all these water projects that at one point worked, but now just kind of sit there and have either completely rusted away, or are only being used as a landmark. Like, hey, meet me at the broken hand pump.

The issues of this stem from a few specific things. One is the technical side of things. Say some people have developed a specific water project. Over time populations grow, populations change and move around, or migrate. So over time, whatever water resource was developed is just not supplying enough water to that community. Eventually the water does go dry and without proper training, that community doesn’t have an idea of how to fix it. They might be just hung out dry and confused about what to do. 

What is also very common, and what you see a lot with hand pumps, is that there’s an oversaturation in the market of hand pump parts. You don’t know if what you’re getting is high quality or not. So they do sometimes break down very easily, sometimes within a year. And if someone within that community doesn’t know how to actually fix it, or they don’t know what to do to get a replaceable part, then it’s just gonna sit there idle in the community.

And this is more or less the case of what I commonly see in Uganda where MissionCleanWater is currently working. But you hear similar stories all around the continent, and in South America, and wherever different clean water projects are being developed. 

What we’ve tried focusing on to prevent these issues is a much more close and intense approach as a community based resource. Because ultimately, as an organization, we really want to see the long term sustainability of these projects. And we feel that really starts at the community level. We could have the world’s best engineers develop and build a project, and it could be created beautifully and to the right specification by the community, but if no one knows how to take care of it, it’s just going to eventually rust away. 

We could have the world’s best engineers develop and build a project, and it could be created beautifully and to the right specification by the community, but if no one knows how to take care of it, it’s just going to eventually rust away. 

So at least at MissionCleanWater, we really try to hear what the community’s perspective is about water, and learn about the different issues they might be facing. And we do that through talking to different demographics in the community, such as the men, children, women, different ages, a little bit of everything.So then we’re able to really get to the root of why water is an issue here.

Then, together with the community, we can figure out what water can look like in the future, at least to them, as well as begin to work with the community to figure out what we can do to maintain and take care of this project. And part of that includes some extensive training—that is definitely necessary—which we do with the different Water District Officers in the area. 

We also develop a Water User Committee to maintain and take care of the project. So there’s oversight and transparency within the community to make sure that the money being given to fix any broken parts is being used properly.

Just through this, we’ve seen everyone within the community have easy access to clean water, and, over the span of more than a year of our first completed project, that the Water User Committee is able to raise enough funds to sustainably fix anything that might break.

JC: I think that’s a great example of a community based approach. How did that first project you worked on come about? How did you approach the community to get them involved with it? 

JL: So the reason we started working in Uganda was because when our organization started growing and beginning to get more national attention, we started receiving messages and emails from all around the world asking for clean water assistance. What people’s intentions were, we weren’t too sure, but we developed proposals to kind of hear what they had to say and to really push forward with the ideas that they were suggesting.

What ended up happening was one gentleman, his name is Andrew, from Uganda—he was the one that was really willing to collect as much data as possible for us and really helped us out to the point where next necessary step was to actually go to Uganda and begin to figure out what might be the next move or next step. 

Andrew is from a district called the Serere District. So together, we have been working there to figure out what might be the best options for clean water systems. And to kind of put that into perspective, the region itself is in the north east of Uganda and in terms of size, it’s like the Northeast United States, like eight states put together.

Image via Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

We had some communities in mind, so from there we created a little spreadsheet to decide who would be the right community to assist first. We looked at how much assistance the community was willing to provide us to really collect and put information together. 

During that first week, we were really just spending the entire time trying to talk to different people from the community and hear different perspectives. Hearing what the woman had to say, because they’re most affected by clean water. Listening to the children and what they might have to say about water, and the challenges they face from it. And hearing from the men, and people of different religions, and different ages. Just trying to get as many perspectives as possible, to really see if water is the biggest obstacle in the way of this community prospering and growing.

From that we were able to develop within the community an approach that would work for them at their level. So we began developing and creating their clean water stores, and from the moment we started working with them we were there at least once a week to talk about what the next step was in the process, make sure they fully understood what’s going on, answer any questions they had, and try to see if there’s any confusion or gaps that we might have to provide training about or further develop.

JC: That listening part is something that everyone I’ve asked this question to about building trust within a community has stressed. It’s super important. 

JL: Oh yeah. Definitely. Honestly, one of the most important parts is simply just being present and understanding where they’re trying to come from. It is definitely very helpful. 

Honestly, one of the most important parts is simply just being present and understanding where they’re trying to come from.

And we really want to try and be at the community level because we don’t want to just be another organization that comes, is present for a bit, develops the project and then leaves and you never hear from us again. Once a project is completed, we really want to work with them to make sure this really is providing what they want and need, and for them to be able to turn to themselves to fix any issues that come up.

JC: It sounds like you operate at a really grassroots level, and I’m curious about how you manage that. Presumably you’re not living there with them. So how do you manage these projects from across the world?

JL: It’s definitely a little bit of a challenge! I think that’s a significant challenge any international business faces because we can’t be there all the time. So we need to develop a significant level of checks and balances and transparency to make sure that we are operating at an ethical and efficient level. Considering the fact that our main team is in the United States, we’re not always in Uganda. 

So what we have done is, in Uganda itself, we enlist the help of that guy I mentioned before, Andrew. Andrew is our community organizer and planner. It more or less came down to having to develop a team within Uganda. We currently have four individuals there. We needed to understand that their main intention is to help the community that they’ve grown up in and have lived in for so many years, and they’re not just trying to be part of the national team for political reasons or some other game. 

So these are four individuals that we are able to communicate with every day that are trusted by the communities that they live in and that we work in. They provide full transparency, show proof of purchases, and different things like that. And they’re really showing that they are here to see the communities that they have worked in develop and prosper.

So by having them to talk to—as well as our team in the United States having someone within the community to talk to—you kind of build this small little triangle that is able to make sure that we fully understand that everyone is doing their part and is able to share any challenges or issues they might be having.

And one thing we want to work on in the future is the ability to increase our level of transparency more with our donors, which is another very important element. We want to try to improve our ability to remote sense water data, so as a donor you can see all that information as well.

JC: That makes a lot of sense and is something Temboo could definitely help you out with. I would love to hear more about the first projects that you worked on and what you’ve learned from them that shaped the way you approach new projects.

JL: The first project was for a community called Agirigiroi. They’re a community of 2,500 people in the Serere District that typically rely on farming and some fishing, to provide for themselves and for their families. 

Image via Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

The reason we decided to work with them first was because they do not have any clean water sources year round. So there’s nothing approved for them to consume or use. They have a wet and a dry season, but during that dry season, for about five months, there’s absolutely no rain. A lot of their closest water sources go dry. So they have to walk significantly far to get any water for themselves. And so we decided based on these perspectives that they would be a good first community to help. 

Within the first few weeks, we just started really working with them and developing community guidelines for water sources. Together, we spent a whole week discussing what a project would look like for them that would be something they wanted to take care of and maintain and what different skills they have within the community. We were working hands on to understand how water is affecting them. 

Once we were done with that, the next few weeks were spent developing their Water User Committee and guidelines within that committee. After that, we were just making sure that when we weren’t present, the Water User Committee was still holding community-based meetings, still helping us collect information, and really showing their own initiative to maintain and take care of this future clean water source. Because we want to see them really be involved on their own time and own initiative, without necessarily always being told to do so.

From that moment on, we began to phase their project in. The community members volunteered their time to assist a technical team and find the best water source for them. And the technical reports found that it was groundwater.

Before we moved to the next phase, which was actual groundwater exploration and drilling, we made sure the community knew of everything that was going on. That they understood why we’re trying to get these reports, how to read them, and understood what we were trying to do.  Then we did groundwater exploration. We found where their clean water source was, did the actual drilling, and worked with them throughout the entire process to help them fully understand everything going on. 

And then finally, where it all kind of ended, was the actual distribution of the groundwater. Together with the community, we decided where they would want to send the clean water to and where to pipe it and distribute it.

We picked four specific locations that were in areas of high population density, but also made sure that every community member within Agirigiroi was within 0.5 kilometers of a clean water collection point. We wanted to make sure everyone, regardless of how remote they were, had access. The community showed us where they thought good locations were. If the pipe went through anyone’s land, they donated the land to see the project come full circle. 

Then once it was complete and clean water was actually flowing, we began the process of seeing how the Water User Committee managed the project and learning how they’re collecting funds to maintain it.

The project is a little over a year old now. And it’s just phenomenal to see the results. People who were walking up to three hours to get water, only walk 15 minutes now. Children are no longer really walking to collect water either. 

People who were walking up to three hours to get water, only walk 15 minutes now.

Some things that we learned from this process—I mean, we had our ups and downs. We learned a few things. 

We learned that funds are necessary to maintain the water system because, you know, it is a utility. And we learned that people within the Water User Committee didn’t really understand ways of collecting funds, or how to be transparent about it. So on top of doing water-based training, we’ve also started providing basic financial training to assist and help with the proper management of money, and to make sure we are able to be transparent with community members, to show that we’re not keeping all the funds, for example.

JC: Can you tell me more about what the Water User Committee is and what responsibilities they’re in charge of?

JL: So the Water User Committee in Agirigiroi has about a dozen members. We wanted to make sure that the committee represents all the different demographics and areas of the community. So it includes men and women, it includes children, it includes teachers—just everyone that’s within the community. All religions are more or less covered and have a different say. 

The Water User Committee was picked during big community meetings. Everyone that is a part of that Water User Committee is more or less an elected official that everyone within the community thought would be set to hold that role. 

The Water User Committee’s main job is to take care of the water systems and to make sure they are raising enough funds to properly maintain the project. So the different roles could include record keeping and bookkeeping. There are secretaries to keep meeting minutes so committee members have access to them in case they had to miss something. It includes a few water technicians—people that are in charge of being able to identify anything that might be broken within the system, where to go to get replaceable parts, and who to contact if they are unsure of how to properly repair any issues.

Image via Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

We also have a Chairman and a Chairlady, kind of like two presidents who see to how the system is being managed as a whole, and further develop it in any other way they see fit based on the community’s needs, such as agriculture or other water uses. 

There’s two people that have the role of security guards, to make sure that the water spigots are locked when they have agreed to close the system. To make sure children aren’t playing on the system, like with the water spigots or something, so nothing breaks or gets bent, as well as to protect the solar panels they have to power the system. And to just make sure that the community is well aware that this is their water source, and to properly maintain it. 

But I would say overall, one of the biggest main roles is collecting water user fees. And when they have been able to do this at a regular rate, like we have seen with Agirigiroi, they have been able to raise a significant amount of funds that will not only be able to repair any broken parts, which they have already done, but also reinvest back into the community itself. So people have used the collection of water user fees as a micro loan system in case someone wants to explore other economic opportunities. They have been using this to develop their own adult literacy program within their community themselves.

We’ve also developed plans for people to be able to use the clean water for economic activities like brickmaking or agriculture, as well as ways they can sell it to the government in times of very high drought.

So it’s just their overall role to understand how much water they have, and take care of this system. And to me, it’s very important that they’re being transparent with their community members, and to make sure they’re using this resource sustainably and to really gain the full economic return that water can have. So that’s great. That’s really cool.

JC: I like that you developed this committee idea. Is that something that was at the heart of what you all wanted to do when you started MissionCleanWater?

JL: A lot of it. It’s definitely common within other water based organizations. We have learned so much from listening to the community’s perspective on the job the Water User Committee is doing, as well as the questions the Water User Committee has had. We’ve been able to develop the process to be so much more than what we initially thought.

Like the micro loans I mentioned before, a lot of these water user fee collection ideas I wish we had from the start. But it was amazing to see the Water User Committee develop it all on their own. They’re the ones that had the micro financing idea and took the full initiative to develop it because the community agreed upon it within themselves.

It’s just been amazing to see how it’s been able to build and develop. We saw the Water User Committee as being the organization to maintain the water project. But now it’s turned into this community organization that not only maintains the clean water source, but has been able to provide water for agricultural use, has been able to reinvest within the community. It’s just been so enlightening and amazing to see them take their own initiative. 

JC: That is amazing! Another thing I saw on your website was that these projects help promote gender equality. I’d love to hear more about that.

JL: Definitely. So clean water greatly affects women and girls, at least from what we have seen in our experiences in Uganda. Typically speaking, the man of the house is out working somewhere, while the women’s role is to maintain everything at home. Do all the different tasks, like cleaning the house, taking care of the kids, selling things at the marketplace, and all that stuff. 

Image via Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

So for someone that is a housewife or is working at home, if they don’t have water there to do all these tasks with, then they have to spend the majority of their day walking to find and collect it. Now, maybe mom of the family also has to take care of two or three children. It might have to be their oldest daughter’s role to go and walk and collect water for the family and bring it back to their house. Because typically the boys might be in school instead.

So you’re losing three, four hours of your day to walking to collect water. And at the same time, you have to be maintaining your house. Just having that time back is so much more of an opportunity for someone.

It’s an opportunity for women and children, especially girls, to have a better involvement in education within their community. Typically what you see with children is if their parents can’t walk to get water, then it’s their role, at least for the girls. And this, majority of the time, requires them to miss out on school. By having the availability of clean water, they don’t have to walk really far to collect it and have that time to reinvest back into their education. 

Walking three hours carrying five gallons of water is exhausting. So if someone has to walk to collect water, head back home, and then go to school, they’re just exhausted by the time they get there. It’s not really the best learning environment for that student. So what we’ve really seen, at least in our first project, is educational benefits for the girls that used to have walk to collect water.

© Jenna Schoenefeld.

And finally, there’s a heavy emphasis on having a significant female role within the Water User Committee, because women have been so negatively impacted by not having water. So you kind of see just better involvement with everything. And it’s just amazing to see that new opportunity presented to someone that had to walk all the time to get water.

JC: That’s great. I’d love to go back to the start of MissionCleanWater. How did you personally become interested in the problem of clean water around the world and how did the organization come about?

JL: Definitely. Let’s see day one. So, I mean, so I, I’m not too sure where you are, but I’m in New Jersey right now. 

JC: I’m in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. 

JL: Right on. So where I’m at in New Jersey, I’m a 45 minute train ride to the city. It’s a stereotypical suburban commuter lifestyle. Nothing wrong with it, but it’s, you know, the tri-state lifestyle. So I grew up in a town called Scotch Plains. It has this setting, where you’re more or less born and raised to think working in New York City is your natural path in life, doing finance and having a family and coming back. 

In 2010, when I was a junior in high school, I was taking a class on global perspective, as my history class. In that class, we had to research water as a topic and why it’s an issue globally. When I began to do that research, I came across the fact that a billion people in the world didn’t have clean water to drink. It affected me so significantly, that I remember researching it and just like not knowing what to do. I was so in shock because you don’t think about that as an issue when you’re just living day by day in New Jersey. 

From that moment on in 2010, my life revolved around understanding and learning as much as I could about water as an issue in the United States and globally. And then when I went to University of Delaware, my major and career path focused around water as a topic. That’s when I began to be able to get more involved in the water and sanitation world. 

MissionCleanWater got started because I had time to work and help organizations doing clean water work in Tanzania, and in Kenya. And I saw all these projects no longer working. I saw how poorly these organizations were approaching working with communities. Something just wasn’t making sense to me. So I figured there had to be a better way of approaching it.

I started trying to talk to as many water based organizations as I could and trying to figure out what could be a good plausible step that I could take. I developed and created MissionCleanWater to really be an organization that has the proper technical experience to create long term sustainable clean water, but also an organization of people that are really willing and excited to work with and talk to community members to see a project go from fundraising to completion.

I saw that that wasn’t a thing that was happening. It makes me so mad whenever I go to Uganda. I visit different areas and it looks like a nonprofit graveyard. It’s terrifying every time. I’m not gonna say it’s a specific organization. But I see classrooms half built. I see toilets that never worked. I see water projects that stop functioning after a year. I saw one organization, they built a huge hospital ward. And it was just sitting there, because they’re like, we want to come and do a ribbon cutting ceremony. I was like, come on.

And so I just figured there had to be a better way, a better approach. There are other water organizations with very similar approaches that are working tremendously well too. I’m happy that MissionCleanWater is able to talk to these organizations and work with them to really see community members have clean water for a long lifetime. 

MissionCleanWater also got created because I’ve always been a big believer in ethical storytelling. I wanted to portray what people experience by not having clean water through my own little endurance journey, versus showing you pictures of like a kid fighting to get water. So MissionCleanWater also originally started as a way of me sharing this journey. 

It started off with me doing a marathon a month for a year, while carrying five gallons of water. Then also walking across the United States, while pulling 10 gallons of water to symbolize what a family goes through. MissionCleanWater was the way for followers to stay up to date on my journey. And then after the cross country trip, MissionCleanWater became an actual 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

JC: That’s amazing. So tell me about your awareness building around the issue. Many people are not aware of the problem of clean water, but it is an issue that affects tons of people in the world, even here in the US. I know you said learning about that was kind of the moment when you decided that this was an issue that you wanted to help resolve. So how do you bring about more awareness of this issue? And tell me more about the different types of awareness building campaigns that you’ve done.

JL: Sure. So, first, simply spoken, one of the very simple ways that we help spread awareness is through how you’ve done some of your research, like through our website and such. That’s a very simple way to share and spread information that we have learned and collected from working with other organizations.

I’ve also been very fortunate to have a team of volunteers that want to give their photography experience and want to give their video directing experience, or their writing abilities to make sure that we’re properly developing and sharing our story. 

I see organizations and groups with these photos of kids like sitting in dirt, and raggedy clothes, with holes in them and they’re really trying to pull the empathetic string to get people to donate. And I’ve always thought, that is not an ethical way of trying to share and develop your story. We want to show how beautiful life is within these communities in Uganda. And so as a group trying to share their story through water, we’ve developed our own system of consent and ethical storytelling that has led to showing how beautiful Uganda is where we’re working, and showing empathy, and the struggle of water in other ways. 

And one of those very common ways has been that I have been doing for some time, which are these endurance challenges that symbolize what people have to go through walking to collect water. A lot of it has been very good visual representation. 

So for example, when I was doing those marathons a month for a year, I’d be carrying those five gallons of water on my head and I’d be trying to complete each and every single marathon. The idea was to show that I’m losing six hours of my day in this race, while carrying water, while children are doing the same exact thing every single day. And until they have clean water, they’ll have to do it today. They’ll have to do it tomorrow. They’ll have to do it the next day. 

This continuous process of how things could be better and could change was what I was trying to show when I did the cross country walk. Sure, it was a walk of adventure and exploration, but it was also my opportunity to visit different areas of the United States that have had extreme water issues and share about them through MissionCleanWater. And then people also can learn how there’s water issues in our neighborhoods and in our own country that seems so prosperous all the time. 

As part of that cross country trip I pulled 10 gallons of water the entire way. I did this because if it’s your job in your family to walk and collect water, and you have four family members, five gallons might only be enough for one person or for two people that day. You might have to walk and collect water multiple times a day. That adds up very quickly. 

So I had all this weight pushing me back. Each step that I took during all those miles symbolized how far and how long people walk to collect water. That journey was 3,250 miles, or how far a child will walk in a year just to collect water for their family. It took me 143 days to complete, which is a great amount of time, I guess you can say. But it also shows that in a year, a kid or someone walking to collect water is losing 143 days every single year just walking to collect water for their family. And around where I grew up, we had 180 days in the school year. So you’re losing 143 of those. That’s crazy. That’s so much time gone. 

Yeah, so I’ve just been trying to take all of these things that I’ve been doing, and show the pain and struggles they’re facing, while also showing the beauty that is present in Uganda.

JC: Wow, that’s awesome. Can you tell me a little bit more about what communities you talked to on that journey across the United States and what you learned from them? 

JL: So I started in Princeton, New Jersey, and I went to San Francisco, California. But I really wanted to volunteer in Flint, Michigan. This was back in the summer of 2017. So to get to Flint, I actually went north to Buffalo, New York, and then West through Canada, and then eventually got to Flint that way. 

The first communities that I visited were communities in rural Pennsylvania that have been negatively affected by natural gas pipelines. I was talking to people in very, very rural locations. You would see these beautifully dense forests, with fragmented lines going throughout the entire forest from natural gas pipelines that were put there. 

I remember talking to one landowner, he was like, yeah, before the pipelines, the water was fine. But now when I turn on my faucet, it’s like a dark, murky color and smells bad. And that was exactly what everyone told me in that area. 

The reason they allow these pipelines to be built in very rural locations, is because all these rural communities used to be one activity economies like coal or timber. So they were promised a temporary job for a little bit. So they were all for it. But then when the natural gas pipeline left, they had no longer had jobs, and their natural resources were tainted. 

The next example came from when I was in Canada, right north of Lake Ontario. It’s just miles and miles and miles and miles of agriculture—corn, wheat, asparagus, literally everything. And the lake there has a lot of what’s called eutrophication issues. All these pesticides and herbicides leak into the ocean and deplete all the oxygen in the water, causing a lot of environmental issues.

I made it to Flint, Michigan after that. So I was able to actually hear what watershed agricultural activists are doing to improve the area, and learn about what actually happened there. And I gained a better understanding through Flint, Michigan residents’ perspective of what happened. It was more or less a case of pure neglect, because these are minority communities. It’s super unfortunate. And I think a week after I left Flint, Michigan, like seven people were charged with manslaughter as a result of that Flint, Michigan case.

And then the next scenario was when I was walking through Nebraska, I had the opportunity to talk to and meet farmers that manage 810,000 acres of corn. Kansas was suing Nebraska at the time, because so many farmers use this one river, the Republican River, as their main water source to irrigate their crops. But similar to what happens with the Colorado River when it reaches Mexico, by the time the Republican River reached Kansas it was going dry, leaving farmers no source of water at all. This was because the Republican River was being used for irrigation for Nebraska’s crops and as it got hotter, they needed more water. 

Additionally, part of the Republican River was being brought into Denver as it grew, as well. So Kansas being farthest down the line was losing the most water. All the people living in the mountains of Colorado were losing their water because there’s been such a huge population increase in Denver.

So it’s just been this constant back and forth of stories that us in the tri-state area don’t ever get to hear because we’re kind of stuck in our own little bubble. Now you hear stories of the desert communities in Las Vegas and in California having extreme droughts. There was Cape Town, South Africa that had a zero day, when they thought they were going to be fully out of water in a thriving metropolis. All these crazy things that I can go on forever about.

JC: I think that’s so cool that you got to talk to all those communities. I’m sure that’s something that really helped bring that awareness to a lot of people who don’t know much about those issues.

For my last question, I would be interested to hear about what’s been going on with MissionCleanWater during the situation we’re in right now with COVID-19. How has it affected the projects you’ve been working on? 

JL: I mean, the pandemic has been interesting. So, you know, I’m in New Jersey, so there were a lot of cases very early on. And there’s a lot of panic, which is extremely understandable.

Because we are an international organization, it was hard for our team to figure out how we could help our community members. All these people that live close to where I live—how can we help them and our donors and our community members with what they might have feared the most? And what was hoarded first? Bottled water. And so our first main response was just being able to be a resource to people to better understand where their tap water is coming from.

We gave them free testing kits to learn what impurities or issues might be present and showed how they could clean the water themselves. Encouraging people to filter and drink their own tap water, rather than going to the shop and risking getting sick to buy cases and cases of bottled water.

And internationally, Uganda also went on lockdown. So it was hard to try and navigate and figure out how we can still benefit and help the communities that we have been working with in terms of their own COVID response. Because Uganda is a country that takes pandemics and issues like this very seriously. And they had a beautiful response, and very few cases. Uganda is on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo where ebola started, so they take it very seriously. 

But as a sanitation and hygiene organization, we were very fortunate to be given approval by the Ugandan government to travel and begin helping the communities that we work with their COVID responses. We were able to help communities to better combat it themselves and to have good health during the lockdown in terms of food security, as well as hand washing and stuff.

Then there’s the other realm. I got COVID, so I was sick for a while. It was a little nuts. I believe I got it from being in the Dubai airport, because I was in Uganda the last two weeks of February and the first week of March. And so that was when COVID first made it stateside, I think, in the beginning of March. Everything closed down March 17. I became very sick but I guess, to put it into perspective, I was very fortunate to have a milder case. It was still awful and terrible, but I didn’t have to be in the ICU or anything.

Similar to small businesses, nonprofits were affected pretty greatly. But we were still able to kind of bounce back as a hygiene based organization. We helped the donors that have helped us out for many, many years. And get healthy.

JC: Wow. That’s crazy. Well, I’m glad you’re okay, and that there’s no lingering issues around your health. 

JL: Yeah, everything’s good. I’m doing a fundraiser right now where I run 30 miles a day for 30 days. Once I was actually healthy, like three weeks afterwards, I had no lung capacity, so it took a hard while to get back going again.

JC: Wow, yeah. Can you tell me about the 30 miles a day? Did you do it already today?

JL: I did. Yeah. So I started July 1. Our next clean water project is for an all girls school called Santa Elizabeth which has about 1,000 students. So to help fundraise and really push forward their efforts, I’ve been running 30 miles a day for 30 days. The reason I’m doing this amount is because the amount of time it takes me to run 30 miles is about the same amount of time it takes a student to walk to collect water. 

So one thing I really wanted to show is that at the end of all of these 30 miles, I have no more energy. I’m ready to go to bed by 4 PM. So I just can’t imagine what it’s like to walk and collect water and then have to go to school and work afterward. Today is day 21. So we are making progress. I have officially completed 630 miles of 900 total. So I’m on the homestretch. Now I’m on the last 33% and this heatwave the past few days has destroyed me.

JC: Wow, that’s very impressive that you’re able to do that. Were you always such a big runner?

JL: In high school and college I played soccer and I played Ultimate Frisbee. So I was always kind of like a specialized endurance sprinter. So then with me trying to think of new ways to fundraise I started with those marathons. I was like, well, I have four months to figure out how to run long distances and how to carry water above my head.

From then on, I’ve used it as a fundraising device and kind of got addicted to the lifestyle. I have more or less become a figure in the running community, at least by where I am. I think the biggest issue for me is that it’s hard. When I have ideas in my head, it’s hard to get rid of them, as you can tell by the marathons that I’m doing now.

But the beauty behind it is that we’ve been able to use it as a good avenue for fundraising. A lot of the people that follow our story are different adventurers. And so I’m always chasing what the next idea is. Talk to me again, in four months, I’ll be like, yeah I’m doing 50 miles for 50 days!

If you enjoyed this interview, make sure to check out Part 1 of our Stories of Community Engagement series featuring Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew, Vice President of Community Affairs for the State Fair of Texas.

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