03/21/2014 06:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Bossy Water Hero Is a Girl Who Leads

Sandra was only 12 when I first met her, yet her slight build couldn't disguise the strength of her determination. Her innate curiosity and infectious smile was already having an effect on the community where she lived: I could tell this young girl was a natural leader.


I first met Sandra last year, when visiting WaterAid's work in the far northeast corner of Nicaragua. Hard to reach and seemingly stuck in time, Wawa Boom is a town so rooted in the local timber industry that it was named for its distinction of being the location where floating logs collected -- the boom -- on the Wawa River before being shipped to the sawmill. It is also a town so severely lacking in educational opportunities, economic outlook and basic necessities, including access to safe drinking water and toilets, that girls like Sandra haven't dared imagine a future beyond the subsistence farming, fishing or timber sales of their parents and the generations before them.

But Sandra's #waterstory has a taken a twist.

Sandra is not only respected for the work that she does as leader of the school hygiene club that WaterAid supports in Wawa Boom, she is also visibly proud of it. Without missing a beat, Sandra explained that her role is to teach other kids in her class about why it's important to wash their hands after going to the bathroom, and before helping to prepare food. She also explains what germs are and how they can spread infection and disease without anyone even knowing that they are there. But Sandra is not your typical student; Sandra is a budding actress, and theatrical performances about how disease spreads are her favorite kind of show.

When I returned to Wawa Boom again with the WaterAid America Board of Directors three months later, I had the chance to see Sandra and her group in action. Against the fading light of late afternoon, students wearing makeshift paper costumes representing flies, germs, people, poop and food flitted around the classroom "stage," as the feigned "germs" infected people with stomach pains so bad that they collapsed into heaps on the ground around us. The message was as simple as it was dramatic: safe water and hygiene save lives.

Sandra and her fellow hygiene club members are busy off the stage, too. When I first spoke with Sandra, she shared with me her dream of having a basic toilet at school so that she and the other students would no longer need to walk out into the bushes to go to the bathroom. It was dangerous, she said, and the boys laughed at her and her friends.

Fast forward just three short months, and Sandra's dream had come true: the community had worked hard to complete construction on a brand new series of safe, dignified toilet facilities, along with a system for collecting rain water in large tanks that would be enough to give the kids safe drinking water throughout the entire school year. Never before have I seen kids so proud of what she emphasized were their toilets -- or the spectacular mural that they had painted on the exterior wall.

Some might call Sandra bossy -- I see her as a leader. She's assertive, confident and opinionated -- and making things happen. When I asked her how she saw her future, she didn't bat an eye. "I want to go to secondary school and university," she told me. "I want to become a doctor." The work that she had done with local WaterAid staff in setting up the hygiene club, she said, had taught her a lot about germs and diseases. She wants to learn how to make people better when they get sick.

This March 22 is a day for all of us to step back and think about our own #waterstory, and the power of clean, safe water on World Water Day, and every day. Sandra and her friends are clearly proving that they can make a difference in the world around them. In their own small way, their work as ambassadors for safe water, improved toilets and hygiene education is giving them the confidence to believe -- for the very first time -- that anything is possible.


If you believe that water and sanitation for everyone, everywhere is possible within our lifetimes then consider joining us on World Water Day. There's never been a better time to make a dream come true.