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Friday, December 15, 2017

Redefining Adventure in Liberia

I had no idea that today would be filled with mountain climbing, sliding down hillsides, laid down motorcycles, black ant attacks, gold mines, lots of sweating, and yes, lots of clean water.

Driving into the middle of the African bush can be a little intimidating. Dirt roads that cars can easily drive on quickly turn into dirt paths that test the limitations of the best 4-wheel drive vehicle. If you want to give clean water to every village in Liberia, you’ll have to start with those paths and usually end up at a broken-down bridge. That’s where we parked our 4-wheel drive today. Fortunately, we had 5 motorcycles with us so I jumped on one of them which is really not one of my favorite things to do on a slippery dirt path.

The motorbike took us about a half of a mile where we approached our first testy hillside. We made a run at it but the morning rains made the path too slick. We had to get off and push the bike up what felt like Mt. Everest! To say my lungs were exploding would be an understatement. Once again in my life, I reached the great milestone of “max sweating!”

We finally reached the top of the hill where we all were gasping for breath. In what seemed like a miracle encounter, a young woman walked by us carrying a large plastic bowl of bananas. For $3 we cleaned her out and got a little energy. While I was standing there, I failed to realize that I was standing in a black ant frenzy. One of the motorbike riders pointed them out to me and that set off a race to get them off of me. We saw them in my socks, but those little things must be really fast because in a matter of seconds, I could feel them climbing up the inside of both my legs. There were even a few that had already made it up the outside of my pants and had climbed inside my shirt! Thankfully the ants were not hungry and I didn’t get one bite! I was just a little freaked out though.

Off on the path we went again, scaling the hillsides briefly by motorcycle until the path became unpassable. We found that out after one of the riders laid down his bike. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt, and so we began walking until we finally reached a valley that turned out to be a gold mine. Yes, a literal active gold mine. There were a few people digging for gold, but we passed on the temptation and pressed on towards the village. Up another giant hill, we went slipping on the slick path while listening to the sound of what sounded like giant birds. Turns out, they were giant birds nesting high in the jungle treetops. They looked like some kind of Toucan with their giant beaks.  

Once we reached the top of this last hillside we FINALLY reached the village of 120 grass huts. It was a pretty awesome sight to behold and probably my favorite in Liberia so far. We were there to follow up with this village that had recently received clean water systems. What would we find? Would the villagers be using them? This village did not seem like it was very sanitary but I still had high hopes that the villagers would be using and enjoying their filter systems.

As the town chief approached, we were greeted with a big smile, and a very warm thank you! He said that their village used to always have diarrhea as they all drink water from the local creek. But since they’ve received their filter systems, all of their diarrhea has disappeared! They were so happy! Of course, I wanted to see the filters in use for myself so we could collect data on this life change. One-by-one, we went to each house. They were ALL using their filters on a regular basis and everyone was able to demonstrate proper use of the filters. We did give a little coaching to a few villagers teaching them to clean their filters systems right after they filter a bucket of water, but for the most part, this village was a home run!

My favorite part of the day was at the first house I visited. There was a little 2-year-old boy who immediately began calling me Papi. He came right up to me and wanted me to hold him which was so precious! He ended up following me around all day.

As we finished up the last follow-ups, the grueling thought came to my mind that we’d have to leave on the same path that we came in on. Well, we took a deep breath and started our journey. Needless to say, I was pretty tapped out after this journey, but it reminded me of just how hard these teams work every day to make sure every village in Liberia is reached with clean water! The NGO teams are the real heroes of this story.

I’m glad I experienced everything I did today! I have a new level of respect for those who do this day after day. No wonder they are so lean and fit!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The sights and experiences of revisiting Liberian clean water villages.

Walking into a Liberian village for the first time in a long time kicked my senses into high gear. I could feel poverty again on a different level as I was surrounded by small grass huts that were homes for the villagers. The scenery was awesome, but the living conditions would be challenging if I were to live here. Thatched roofs, dirt floors, an outdoor kitchen consisting of a fire pit, and buckets for water were the norm. The smell of a fire pit and a large deep pan of cooked rice were reminders of what lunch would look like, their first meal of the day.

As I walked around the village someone reminded me that it is harvest season here in Liberia. Rice was being harvested which provides the main staple of food. Almost every household had someone in the front yard pounding raw rice with a large wooden rod into a carved out tree trunk. Even the children were getting in on this chore as they must prepare their own rice in order to cook it and eat it. The children let me take a turn in the pounding and I quickly learned that villagers must work hard to prepare their food.

Bananas were in season and we enjoyed a large bunch that we were able to purchase for $1. Kasava was also being harvested and nothing went to waste. Even the leaves for the Kasava plants were being pounded the same way as the rice, grinding it down into something that looked like parsley flakes. These flakes would later be boiled and served over the rice for a traditional Liberian meal. Two meals a day at most would be the norm here.

There were chickens running around everywhere and a few dogs that really didn't like me being there. They growled but kept their distance.

What always stands out to me in the villages is the children. Just in like every village, there are several kids that warm right up to a visitor, and then a bunch of kids that seem nervous at best. Some would duck for cover behind their parents as we approached the house to do a follow up on the clean water filter systems. Am I really that scary? I guess a tall, white-headed man was something they had never seen.

Follow-ups are a big part of the sustainability of the Sawyer filters and they serve as an opportunity to see if the villagers are using and cleaning their filter systems properly. We learned a long time ago that sustainability is all about "behavior change." Without the villagers taking to the newly learned behavior of filtering their water and cleaning their filters, these amazing water filters would have a short lifespan. So we give continuing education and training to each family who received a filter system so they can demonstrate proper use and maintenance of the filters, and so the filters will last for years.

We visited 8 different villages for what would be the 2nd round of follow-ups. Follow-up number 1 comes at the 2-week mark, and follow up number 2 comes at the 8-week mark. Nearly every person in these 8 villages was doing an awesome job of using and maintaining their systems. We only found 1 system that had a really clogged filter. With a little backflushing, we were able to get that filter working properly again, and it provided us a great opportunity to reinforce the behavior of cleaning the filter. Turns out, that family had damaged their cleaning plunger so we were able to replace it and teach them the idea of sharing with other families should that ever happen again.

One thing was for certain. As we surveyed each family, we were confirming that they all had experienced major changes in their health. Runny stomach used to be a normal thing in all of the villages as they were all drinking contaminated creek water, but since they've received their Sawyer filter systems, their runny stomach has been eliminated, even though the creek is still their water source. It is really quite fascinating that something so simple could change so many peoples lives!

It's a good thing for me to be in the field. It is always a reminder of how most of the world lives every day. But even with so much poverty, there is joy in the lives of these villagers. How could this be? Well, it's certainly not driven by material things, but rather a deep joy from faith, family, community, and now a new level of thriving with the gift of clean drinking water.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Fiji - Where My Clean Water Journey Began

In August of 2008, I stepped foot for the first time on the Fiji Island of Viti Levu. So many parts of Fiji are like paradise, but as I would find out, the remote, rural villages lacked a safe drinking water supply. The phrase "what if you could change the world?" rang out in my mind. The phrase "what if you could change a country" became my passion.

Give Clean Water was fortunate to have Risen Media film our story. Here is a 3-minute sizzle that captures our journey.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Some of my Real Heroes of Clean Water Around the World - Thankful!

Today is Thanksgiving and I'm thankful for so many things in my life. I'd like to introduce you to some of my heroes of clean water around the world.

First up is my wife Sheri who has been with me all along the journey of life! We've been married 34 years and she is one of the kindest, Godly women you will ever meet! She is my best friend and has supported everything I do. I could not possibly succeed on this clean water journey without her! Thank you, Sheri!

Lee Larson...AKA Dad! My dad has been with me on several clean water trips to Fiji and is the best social media "sharer" I know! I'm thankful for his never-ending support of all I do in Life.

Alon Banks and I have worked together since1998 where we first met while working for Amor Ministries. He is the Executive Director of Give Clean Water and is one of the most genuine, kind, smart, and funny guys I know. I'm so grateful to be on the journey with him of giving clean water to the entire country of Fiji!

Steve Jolly (far right) is the Operations Director for Give Clean Water and is pictured with Avinesh Naiker and David Reddy who are part of the Give Clean Water staff in Fiji. These guys get it done! David Reddy has been with Give Clean Water since its beginning in 2008! He and his wife Illy are both on the GCW staff and have 3 beautiful children!

Todd Phillips is the Executive Director of The Last Well and is one of the most dynamic leaders I've ever met. He leads the charge in giving the entire country of Liberia clean water by December of 2020.

Randy LeTourneau is the VP of The Last Well and the person I hang out with the most on my Liberia trips. He is a logistical wizard!

Dennis Aggrey wins the "Best Smile in Africa" award. He's the Director of CRCA, an amazing organization in Liberia committed to using clean water as a tool to share the gospel, as well as plant and disciple churches.

Sam Tablo (pictured on the right) works for CRCA as their missions pastor and is one of the key trainers of the Sawyer Water filters in Liberia. He is a kind and compassionate leader who leads from the front lines.

Elijah Harley (left) leads the Assembly of God clean water team of 20 people in Liberia. They are all dear friends of mine! They use clean water as a tool to share the gospel and plant 650 new churches in Liberia by 2020. He is also a key Sawyer filter trainer in Liberia.

There are too many to mention individually, but there are over 125 trained filter installers in Liberia who are on the front lines every day changing people's lives!

Sister Larraine Lauter leads Water With Blessings in Honduras, Haiti, and in over 40 other countries around the world! She has an amazing program called Water Women and is currently working to eliminate Cholera in Haiti. She is a clean water rock star!

Simon Gounder is my good buddy who got me started in Fiji and currently serves on the Give Clean Water board. He also leads an amazing ministry called Global Aim and has helped launch a clean water initiative in India. I was with Simon the first time I ever went to Fiji and it was like walking around with Elvis! Everybody knows this guy!

Mark Tyler works for Global Aim and is training teams in India on water filter installations and data collection. He is a retired Marine and knows how to get it done while maintaining a gentle, compassionate heart.

Jordan and April Congdon lead the Amor Ministries team in the Yucatan Peninsula and have begun installing clean water systems in that part of Mexico. I've known Jordan since he was a little kid and he has grown up to become quite a leader! He was an elite football (Nebraska and USC kicker) and soccer athlete and continues to use those skills to reach out to children in Mexico.

These are just a few of the amazing people I get to work with around the world! They have all committed their lives to serve the poor and I'm thankful and grateful to serve with them on the clean water journey!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Clean Water Saving and Changing Lives? - Here is Proof!

The vision of providing clean drinking water to the world is something I wake up thinking about every day. Why? Well for starters, it's a fact that 3.4 million people die every year from waterborne sickness making bacterially contaminated water the #1 killer in the world. Secondly, I've personally met people from all over the world who have lost loved ones due to a lack of safe drinking water. My conversations with them live permanently in my heart.

I traveled to a Fijian village a few years ago with a Doctor who told me she recently had 2 different mothers bring their dead babies to her clinic. Both babies died from severe dehydration as a result of drinking bacteria-filled water.

On a recent trip to Liberia, a mother who lived in a rural bush village begged me to bring water filters to her village because the creek where they fetched their water from was literally killing her children.

I learned that a common set of questions in Liberia is "how many children have you birthed?" and "how many children are still living?"

Do these conversations bother you as much as they bothered me? They are real and very common in many parts of the world.

So my days are consumed with the following thoughts... How can I get more clean drinking water filter systems into the homes of people who so desperately need them? Who can I train and equip so the impact of clean water will exponentially multiply? And how can I use my love for systems to help organizations not only track the amount of clean water they give, but also track the impact that clean water has on diarrhea reduction, kids missing less school, adults missing less work, medical cost savings, and purchased water savings? When you follow my travels, this is what I'm doing.

A key nitch of my clean water journey has been "proving" all of these changes with real-life data collected on smartphones and tablets. I guess you could say I spend a lot of my time building capacity into people from different countries teaching them not only how to install and sustain water filter systems, but also to conduct surveys of each household that receives a clean water system. These "before and after" surveys are proving and quantifying how clean water is changing lives.

Here is an example. In a recent batch of 3.000 households surveyed, 2,197 of them reported cases of diarrhea. Two weeks after those families received water filter systems in their homes, that number was down to only 107 cases of diarrhea! That's a 95% reduction!
Coughs, sore throats, skin rash, vomiting, and headache all had dramatic decreases as well. There was also a big increase in households that reported "No symptoms" after the first follow up.

In addition to the stats, we can track everything we collect on a map. Here are maps of our progress in Liberia. 
Liberia Clean Water Progress - Green is Install - Yellow is1st Follow Up - Orange is 2nd Follow-Up - Red are County Assessments

Fuamah District, Bong County Liberia - Each dot represents a cluster of villages.
I think you get the idea. Data is "the deal." To date, I've had the privilege of personally training data teams in Fiji, Liberia, Mexico, Kenya, India, and Haiti, and being a part of installing filter systems in over 30 countries! I love my job! In my next post, I'll introduce you to some of my favorite clean water heroes around the world!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Zagreb, Croatia: Beautiful City with a City Center Full of Options

The New Zagreb Airport Terminal
We arrived in Zagreb, Croatia to a brand new airport. Our hosts from the company "GIS Cloud" told us even they were surprised at how nice it was. They took us to our hotel where we quickly checked in and then headed for the town center where the evening temperature was 40 degrees and dropping.

There is something magical when the air is cold, Christmas decorations are going up in the city, and Chestnuts are literally being roasted on an open fire. When we arrived we thought we'd be visiting a small town square, but we were surprised by a massive, bustling city center that must have stretched over a square mile.

The was a small farmers market loaded with local goods like honey, salami, bacon, produce, eggs, lavender, flowers, and what looked like local essential oils. There were endless retail shopping stores and lots of heated street-style restaurants with a variety of food ranging from burgers and pizza to coffee and gelato. We ended up going with a burger which was delicious and some apple cake for dessert. It was a beautiful evening, but we knew we'd need to return the next day to cover the rest of the square.

The next afternoon, we decided to try the local tram. After about a 15-minute wait, we caught the tram right into the city center for about 30 cents each. For comparison, an Uber ride from our hotel was about $3.

We arrived at about 1pm and the temperature was again about 40 degrees. The low that night would be 28. Wearing our heavy jackets, beanies, and gloves, we walked the streets of the center. Since it was Sunday afternoon, many of the shops were closed but there were a few open for business. 

Most of the restaurants were open and at about 3pm, a hot coffee sounded really good. We found a nice cafe and ordered the "large" coffee which was quite a bit smaller than a Starbucks tall. It was really good though and it was nice to get out of the cold for a few minutes. 

We found the vendor who was selling chestnuts that were roasted on an open fire and decided to try some. Sheri put the first one in her mouth and immediately made a face. She said she was going to need a drink of water because they were kind of pasty. She offered me one and I could see what she meant. The chestnut was warm and soft, but it felt like it was swelling inside my mouth with a dry, pasty texture. One was enough for me until we could find some water.

We decided to head back to the hotel and got a workout in at the gym, and then caught Newbreak's video sermon online before heading back to the square for dinner. It was way cheaper to eat dinner in the square than to eat at the hotel, plus the vibe was way better. We ate at a restaurant called Submarina, but it was really more of a burger joint. We carefully picked our table outside so we could sit near a heater. We ordered and split the Smokehouse burger along with some cheese fries that were really tasty. It was a nice day in the city center and if you are ever in Zagreb, you should definitely check it out!

Tomorrow we meet with the GIS software company we use to track and map all of our clean drinking water projects around the world. For me, that is one of my favorite parts of what I do as we get to map and quantify the life changes that take place when people receive clean drinking water systems. We are able to eliminate nearly all of their stomach sickness, keep kids in school more days, keep adults working more days, eliminate the need to purchase purified water, and cut their medical expenses way down! I'm looking forward to finally meeting the Croatian team in person!

Although Zagreb is a really nice, clean city in Croatia, the people that live here tell us that we should come to Croatia in the Summer to experience some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Maybe next time. For now, it was a nice break from the warmth of the Southern California weather to experience the brisk temperatures of Europe in the Fall. I'm hoping Fall will be in full force when we return home to San Diego on Tuesday. I'll be home for 2 1/2 weeks, then off to Liberia, Africa for more clean water adventures in the bush!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Brussels - So much to see. A day is not enough.

What could possibly be better than a beautiful evening in Brussels? Answer: A full day! But that would prove to be "not enough."

Our day began with another brisk walk to the Metro station. The tram was a new adventure last night but now it was the obvious choice for the most affordable and accessible way to get around Brussels. The first thing I noticed in the daylight was that Fall was in full force with beautiful colors throughout the city! 

Photo by Sheri Larson
We were at the end of the tram line and 15 stops later, we reached the heart of the city. The tram line gave us a good look at what I would call "purposeful graffiti." I've seen many city tram lines with random graffiti that is riddled with attempts to grab power or determine territory. In Brussels, graffiti was more of a giving display of artistic expression. There were miles of extensive, beautiful murals. None of them seemed to overlap, but rather shared in a collaborative expression of the diverse gift of life. I found it very refreshing and wished other cities would borrow this idea.

Photo by Sheri Larson
As we exited the tram, the city was just as bustling as the night before. The air was cold enough to see your breath, but still enough that a medium jacket kept us warm. We were excited to see that many more businesses were open in the day. I thought Brussels would be more of a night town, but many businesses close around 7 or 8pm. The chocolate stores were in full force and we went back into a few of them to take care of a few holiday requests.

As we made our way into the Royal Place square, the architecture was even more stunning. I don't think I noticed all of the gold trimmed buildings the night before. It was beautiful in the daylight! 

I found myself wishing we were here two weeks later as we could see all of the Christmas decorations being hung throughout the city and we could tell that Christmas time in Brussels would be a beautiful sight to behold!

Leaving the heart of the city we walked up a large hill to what would turn out to be the museum district. There were majestic buildings with ornate courtyards and scenic lookouts. We were definitely at the highest part of the city which gave us an incredible view back towards the Royal Place. It was worth the walk!

We ventured into one of the museums that featured a collection of rare books. There were 15th century Bibles on display as well as original era "Romeo and Juliet" copies. Even though I couldn't understand much of the placard descriptions, I felt the richness of history on display. The museum was free and I'm so glad we went in.

At the top of this section of the city was a collection of very nice hotels like the Hilton and Marriot. I looked them up on Trip Advisor and found out that they were only 2/3 the price of the hotel we stayed at near the convention center, and WAY nicer. In hindsight, I think I still would have picked the convention center hotel due to its proximity to the EXPO. I can't imagine hauling all our convention gear from the city square area. That said if you come to Brussels and are not here for a convention, consider staying up the hill from the Royal Place. It's about a 1/4 to 1/2 mile walk, but the area is safe and the walk will help your Fitbit. 

Photo by Sheri Larson
We spent a couple of hours at the top of the hill and by now the sun was starting to set. It's amazing the difference in temperature between 2pm and 3:30pm. A slight breeze made us wish we had our heavier jackets instead of the medium ones. As we walked down the hill I could feel my face starting to freeze, not my favorite feeling in the world. 

We really wanted to see a bit more of Brussels so we decided to take the Hop on Hop off bus around the city. Both levels were heated which was nice. Sheri and I have loved this tour in all of the cities we've visited and this one was worth it too. I'd recommend it if you ever come here.

After our bus tour, we made our way back to the square for a hot beverage. Starbucks was the choice and it hit the spot. Our day in Brussels was drawing to a close and we wished we had one more day to explore the Atomium and Mini Europe. Maybe next time. There is so much to see in Europe and one of these days we'd like to see it by train.

Next stop Croatia.