03/22/2012 06:24 pm ET Updated May 22, 2012

Kenya Water Project Saves Lives In More Ways Than One

Give Your Dreams Wings
Back in July 2010, I was sitting around a kitchen table in Seattle with four friends and a common dream: to create a grassroots project to provide clean drinking water to those in need. To my right sat Martin Kim. Martin and I had recently founded Freewaters, a new footwear brand committed to improving lives through clean drinking water projects. Across the table were Phil and Dalene Hamer, who had co-founded to raise awareness about the issues of street kids. To my left sat Russell Qualls, Associate Professor and Idaho State Climatologist at the University of Idaho, who had recently received training in a very unique and low cost technique for digging wells.

Around that wood table we shared a 'meal' of ideas and resources on how we could create clean drinking water projects. Phil and Dalene had extensive experience working with street kids in Kenya and knew firsthand communities there that lacked access to clean water.
Russell, who had adopted two children from Ethiopia, had recently traveled to Kenya and was frothing with excitement to put his new training in wells construction to use. Martin and I had never been to Africa and had zero experience in water projects. What we did know was we were tired of procrastinating to make the world a better place and as footwear designers we could use shoes as a tool for change.

Around that table, in less than four hours, Projectfreewaters was born. We would dig wells in communities of need in Kenya and employ street kids in the projects to provide them with training and stable income. Collectively we had a bubbling stew of enthusiasm and just enough experience to convince ourselves it could be done. We didn't get hung up on details and instead went on instinct and a lot of faith. Six months later, in December 2010, we all jumped on flights to Kenya.

Nothing Is Too Amazing To Be True
Fast forward to the present: Projectfreewaters has successfully completed six wells in Tulwet, a rural village of approximately 10,000 people near Kitale, Kenya. Tulwet previously lacked any clean and consistent source of water. Dalene just returned from her latest trip to Kenya a couple weeks ago and called me as soon as she returned home, "Eli, because of these six wells, the village elders are reporting an instant and dramatic reduction of mortality from water borne diseases, especially in children and the elderly. Also, by employing and mentoring street kids in these projects, we are rehabilitating them back into functioning members of society. They learn responsibility by being held accountable to their co-workers and are provided a steady salary."

Each well in Tulwet is located next to a previous water collection site which was either a hand dug well, open water pit or small stream. All of these sources are contaminated because they are open to surface runoff from livestock, latrines and other sources of disease. The precise well locations are determined by team leader Barnabas Miheseo who uses water taping - an ancient technique using two sticks which "sense" where aquifers lay underground. Barnabas, age 52, combines ancient and modern techniques as he graduated from the Kenya Water Institute in 1986 and is an expert drilling foreman. Dalene asked him to describe his role and Barnabus calmly stated, "Drilling for water is not only my job it is my hobby, and I love every aspect of the project." Co-leader Franco Chesumei, age 47, has six children and the strength of six men. He has worked with water and agriculture all his life. He described his vision as, "For everyone to have their own water so they don't depend on the government, can plant their own food and have a good life."

There are two street kids currently employed full time on the team. Mohammed Dosantos, 24, spent over 10 years living on the streets of Kitale. Before the water project he had to constantly find small jobs to get "his daily bread" and admits he would still be on the streets without this consistent work. Jackson Ekal, 21, lost his mother at age ten and ended up on the streets after running away from what he describes as a "corrupt orphanage." He loves work on the water projects because they are inline with his training in construction and his dream of being an engineer.

We Can Do No Great Things, Only Small Things With Great Love.
With over 3,300,000 people dying every year from dirty water and the crisis growing globally, our work has just begun. While at this point Projectfreewaters is a small spoke in the wheel of global water projects, it is directly saving and transforming lives. Today is World Water Day and our hope is the story of Projectfreewaters will be a source of inspiration and a call to action. Small actions and small steps are where profound changes come from. Get around a table with your favorite people and give your dreams wings.

Learn more about Projectfreewaters here and find out how you can donate here.