A classmate and friend of mine started her own non-profit organization to fight the water crisis by implementing clean water systems in places where people do not have access to clean water. I had no clue what the water crisis was, and it seemed like a problem that had nothing to do with me. I was proud of my friend and wanted to show my support for her efforts, however, so I started brainstorming ways I could help. I thought about donating money, but I’m a poor college student. So I needed to come up with something else. I saw that a classmate had supported my friend’s organization by carrying a jerry can with 40 pounds of water for four miles, which is a reality that many women and children face every day. I told my friend I wanted to carry a jerry can too, and the next day she brought me one from her office. Little did I know how much that jerry can would impact my life.
I decided I would carry the jerry can with me for one day to all of my classes. In the morning, I went to fill up my jerry can, thinking I could surely carry 40 pounds of water, knowing many women and children did the same every single day. However, when I tried to pick up the container I could barely even lift it, let alone carry it to my classes. Tears immediately sprang to my eyes as I tried to imagine being forced to do that each morning. I knew in that moment that I had to do something to teach others about the difficulties and injustice these people face.
After the first day of carrying the jerry can, I decided I would carry it every day to each of my classes. I made a fundraising page so people could donate to my friend’s organization, and soon many donations were flooding the page. The neat part was, most of the donations were from students I barely knew—they had just seen me lugging around my jerry can that day and wanted to show their support. The constant donations and encouragement inspired me to challenge myself to a new goal: I would carry the jerry can with me everywhere I went, at all times, not just to classes. Soon, the jerry can was going with me to the gym, to the grocery store, to coffee shops, and to Church. I got a lot of odd looks, but I also quickly raised my first goal of $500 and then my second goal of $1,000. To my surprise, only five months later, I raised my goal of $7,500 to purchase an entire windmill aqueduct, which is going to provide an entire village in Panama with clean water. I continued to carry the jerry can with me everywhere I went after reaching my goals, to continue walking in solidarity with those without access to clean water.
The eight month journey of carrying this jerry can brought many amazing experiences that I would have otherwise missed out on. For instance, I got to travel to Washington D.C. to talk to Capitol Hill staffers and advocate for the Water for the World Act, which was something I never thought I would be able to do. However, I found that advocacy work is a lot easier when it is something you are truly passionate about, and I found out firsthand that it can truly make a difference when I received a letter from my Senator saying he would vote for the bill if it made it to the Senate floor. The experience opened my eyes to the impact that just one person can have. Another opportunity was purchasing more jerry cans for others to carry. By the end of the semester, nearly 50 people had taken turns carrying cans around campus to spread awareness about the water crisis with me. It was amazing to see other students realize the small steps they could take to make a difference, too.
Spreading awareness did not just stop with the “Water Ambassadors” who carried jerry cans in support and solidarity. I created a club at my school called Billikens For Clean Water, whose threefold mission is to: spread awareness about the water crisis; walk in solidarity with those without access to clean water; and fund clean water projects. We now have an E-Board and a large group of students who are determined to take on the water crisis one jerry can at a time. In March, some the club members joined me on my birthday in walking twenty-one laps around the track field (one for each of my twenty-one years) with jerry cans. In April, a group of us walked in a local St. Louis half marathon with signs explaining that we were walking in solidarity with the one in nine people without access to clean water. Our club just completed our fundraiser for Belize, and I got the opportunity to travel to Punta Gorda to help deliver three water filters that our club purchased for two schools. Our current fundraiser is for a community in Honduras, and this time our club members are implementing the project from start to finish. We are headed to Honduras in December to start the assessment phase of the project, in which we are going to get to know the community members and ask them about their water and what they would like to see done. It makes my heart burst with joy to think about how big our club has grown in such a short amount of time.
Not only has the club grown immensely, but I have also experienced tremendous change and growth in the process. Less than a year ago I had no idea what the water crisis was, and now I am interning at a non-profit water organization, I plan to get my Master’s in Public Health, and I want to pursue a career combating the water crisis. But these personal realizations are not nearly as important as some of the bigger lessons I have learned. I have discovered that it is possible to be in solidarity with people that live very different lives than I do. Each time I turn on my faucet, I am reminded of the women and children who walk long distances to obtain clean water. Instead of living as an isolated individual focused only on my own life and surroundings, I now think of all of us together as one, connected by our human-ness.
More upsettingly, I have noticed how apprehensive millennials are to do something radical to spark change. We are so scared of sticking out in the crowd, but this attitude will get us nowhere. There are people who are not being treated with the dignity they deserve, and I hope that my story can inspire other people to stand up to these injustices. All it takes is one small action to get people’s attention, and soon the justice will start flowing. It is time to understand that everyone on this earth is one body that needs all of its parts to work together. I did not realize this important lesson until this year, but now every day I look forward to the opportunity to challenge myself to see what small actions I can take to live a sustainable life that is in accord with my mission to be in solidarity with my brothers and sisters across the world. And to imagine, this all started with a jerry can.
Hannah Vestal is a senior at Saint Louis University, studying Psychology with minors in Public Health and Theology; she is striving to fight the water crisis, one jerry can at a time.