By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
WARRENSBURG — In a snowball fight, it was always a good idea to team up with Gary White.
“He would build the best snow forts,” said his cousin, Lesa Carroll.
Those childhood days in suburban Raytown are long gone, but the two cousins are still teaming up.
On Feb. 25, Sacred Heart Catholic Pre-School in Warrensburg, where Carroll is the director, held a parish dinner and raffle to raise funds for Water.org, a project co-founded by White to bring safe drinking water as close as possible to the world’s 1 billion people who lack it.
It is an issue so simple that the three-year-olds in White’s school understand it.
“We are a Catholic school,” Carroll told the people who packed the parish hall for the fund-raiser that brought in $2,239.
“We have a service component to our curriculum,” she said. “We want them to learn at an early age that it’s really important to look beyond their circle to the needs of others. To pull it down to basic needs for our children, the most basic need is food and water.”
Carroll and White — and the entire extended family — teamed up in 1990 when White held his first fundraising dinner at St. Bernadette Parish in eastern Kansas City.
“We raised enough money that first year to help one village have a clean water source,” Carroll said. “The next year, we raised enough money to help two villages.”
A graduate of Archbishop O’Hara High School, White’s college degree in civil engineering was barely dry and his career barely begun when he took a trip to Guatemala that would change his life, Carroll explained.
“Gary was on a team that was sent to Guatemala to solve a problem,” she said. “There were lots of people doing water projects, but many of them were failing. He was sent to investigate why that was happening.”
Her cousin learned a double lesson on that trip.
First, he discovered that water systems put in place were too complicated, with far too many mechanical parts that were destined to break, nobody trained and left in charge to fix it, and no way to pay for it.
Second, while in Guatemala, White became seriously ill by drinking the local water. It was a lesson in the basic, fundamental, human need for water that gave urgency to the new cause for which he would abandon his career and set up WaterPartners.
White’s first water systems were simple, and that philosophy has always guided his work. The first projects were gravity based, collecting water from a source higher in elevation and piping it down to a concrete collection tank where it would be treated. From the collection tank, the water could then be sent by gravity to taps at each home in the village.
But that still was only part of White’s solution. WaterPartners also organized the village into its own, and very often, first form of government to collect small fees from each user for the maintenance of the system.
In addition, WaterPartners used local labor to build the system so that local people knew exactly how it worked, and used materials reasonably available to them so that they could get parts to fix whatever might break.
More than 20 years later, every one of the small village-based systems White has designed are still working, Carroll said.
As the success of WaterPartners grew, so did the organization. In 2002, it became WaterPartners International in recognition of its work on every contintent on the globe.
Then in 2009, WaterPartners International combined its know-how with the star power of Hollywood actor Matt Damon and his H2O Africa project to become Water.org.
Water.org has now expanded its scope to provide not only expertise in design, construction, organizing and maintenance of clean water sources, but also in making micro-loans, some as little as $25, to its new water “customers” so that they might buy a share in the system and cover intial construction costs from a revolving loan fund.
The payback rate of those loans from people living in destitution? “When I last checked, it was 99.2 percent,” Carroll said.
That was what the dinner in Warrensburg was all about. Though it is officially a charity with tax-deductible donations, Water.org is not trying to solve one of the world’s great problems solely through charity.
“The people in the community pay for it, they build it, so they own it and understand it,” Carroll said.
She quoted her cousin: “There will never be enough charity to bring safe water for everyone.”
But the need is still great.
Citing Water.org statistics, more than 3.5 million people a year die from preventable diseases caused by drinking contaminated water.
For 1 billion people living in the world — three times the entire population of the United States — their only source of water is from a river, stream, pond or even puddle that also contains raw garbage and sewage.
Families, usually women and children, are spending millions of hours every year just walking to and gathering whatever water they can find. That is time not spent in school, or working at jobs that would bring in an income, or growing food.
And one village at a time, Gary White is changing the world, his cousin said.
“It’s amazing to me how he tells of where there once may have been subsistence villages, there are now schools. Maybe there is a marketplace,” Carroll said. “It changes the whole community.”
Water.org is also changing children in Warrensburg not quite old enough for kindergarten, Carroll said.
“They have been bringing in money. We pray for children who don’t have water,” Carroll said.
The children of Sacred Heart Catholic Pre-School are also learning an important lesson — they can make a difference in the lives of another person, even on the other side of the planet.
“The children get it,” Carroll said. “They don’t have water. We know how to fix it. Let’s do it.”