Teen's vision brings water to Darfur

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MILAN, Tenn. — Joshua Guthrie was a troubled teen. Like many others of his generation, the high school sophomore was troubled by the needless suffering of so many people in so many places. Hunger and poverty. Wartime atrocities and sex trafficking. AIDS orphans and genocides.

It seemed so impossible for a 16-year-old in west Tennessee to make a difference.

Then Joshua read "Do Hard Things," a bestselling book by twin brothers Alex and Brett Harris, at 20 years old only barely out of their teens themselves. The book challenges young people to rebel against "the myth of adolescence" — the notion that teens are by nature irresponsible, immature and rebellious. "By breaking the mold of what society thinks we are capable of, teens can achieve so much more than what's expected," the brothers write. "We've seen 'average' teenagers transformed from channel changers to world changers who are accomplishing incredible things."

The book rocked Joshua's world.

"For as long as I can remember, my family has supported children through World Vision, and we have gotten their catalogs, which list items you can buy for needy people around the world," Joshua said during an interview at his parents' home near Milan, Tenn. "I had always wanted to be able to buy one of the really big items, like the largest well, which was $10,000."

Joshua knew that clean, safe water is a life-and-death issue for nearly 900 million people around the world. He found it deeply disturbing that water-related disease kills more than 3.5 million people each year — the vast majority of them children, almost half of them because of simple diarrhea.

Joshua's desire to help grew even more when Jeff Palmer, executive director for Baptist Global Response, came to the Guthrie home for dinner in the spring of 2008. Palmer and Joshua's dad, George, had been friends since their college days at Union University in nearby Jackson, Tenn., where George Guthrie now serves as a Bible professor. Joshua learned that Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization, works on precisely the kind of human needs ministries he cared so much about.

"Mr. Palmer told me how they were helping drill water wells in Sudan and he gave me some tips about how to go about raising money for a project like that," Joshua recounted. "I thought that paying for a well would be a really cool thing to do, but a teen really can't save up $8,000 or $10,000 for a well. I knew I would have to raise it with the help of others. When I read Do Hard Things, I thought, 'I really need to get going on this if I actually want to do anything.' So I kind of took the step to get started."

Joshua zeroed in on the idea of giving other teens an achievable goal: giving up one drink so they could give $1 to help build one well in Sudan. He set a goal of raising $8,000 by Christmas. With his parents' help, he reserved an Internet domain — dollarforadrink.org. They registered the new organization as a nonprofit, got a post office box and set a launch date of Oct. 1. They got a basic website up, and Joshua started talking the project up in the forums at the Harris brothers' website, therebelution.com.

"It's a wonderfully run website," Joshua said. "I got lots of advice, encouragement and suggestions, even before I started the project. Then the Harris brothers announced they would match all donations given by their members, up to a total of $1,000.

"It came in fast," Joshua said. "The first gift we received was $250 from a college student. In less than two weeks, we had reached the $1,000 matching gift goal. And the day after Christmas, when we received the $1,000 check from Alex and Brett Harris, we had raised a little over $10,000."

Money kept coming in, however, and by the time they were ready to write the check, the total had risen to $11,200.

The drive succeeded, not because of large checks, but because so many people made small donations.

"We had kids who were in their youth groups or on their campuses doing these mini-drives," said Joshua's mother, Pat. "We'd get these checks from these little churches and groups, just all over the place."

"Apart from the Rebelution check, everything else was pretty much small donations," Joshua said. "We didn't have a whole lot of single-dollar donations, but we had lots of $5 and $10 gifts. I'm sure lots of people in churches and at schools gave single dollars, but it just came to us in a larger check.

"Through the post office box, we got a lot of money in with cards and letters, just giving us encouragement to keep going and that they really appreciated what I was doing," he added. "It was always a lot of fun to go to the post office and find a large stack of letters and read them. My favorite was from a little old lady in a nursing home who said, 'I don't have much I can give. I just wanted to give what I could,' and there was like $5 in the envelope. It was so sweet. I wrote her back to thank her."

On March 15, Joshua received photos of the well put in by his Dollar for a Drink campaign. The photos were sent by Abraham Shepherd, who directs Baptist Global Response work in North Africa. One image showed young people from a community of about 6,000 people in Sudan's Darfur region, drawing water from the new borehole. Before this well was drilled, people had to walk at least four hours to get to a source of clean water, Shepherd said.

"On behalf of the needy people of Sudan, I thank you for caring and rallying others to care with you, to provide that drink of water," Shepherd wrote. "When I told them about your desire to raise more funds and drill more wells, in working with BGR, the response from Sudan was: 'We need all the help that we can get. We need people like yourself who will help us quench the thirst of the needy and give them hope.'"

Jeff Palmer agreed: "The Apostle Paul said to Timothy, 'Don't let anyone look down upon you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.' I think Joshua has set that kind of example for us all. He took on this awesome vision, followed God's leading and showed a whole generation his own age, as well as those much older, that God can do amazing things when we hear and follow His plans for us. My prayer is that more people will be inspired by Josh's story and dare to make a difference."

Joshua has his sights set on another round of fundraising — with a goal of $16,000 to drill two wells. This time, he can spend his summer raising awareness, instead of organizing the project, and he plans to launch the campaign Sept. 1 to coincide with the start of school.

He said he has learned two important lessons from his experience.

"I learned you actually have to take the first step forward," he said. "In the beginning, I was just kind of thinking, 'Well, what do I need to do?' I guess starting something like this was kind of intimidating. But Dad and I sat down and made a list of five things we needed to do. They were real simple things, and then we just kind of got going with it. Things started accelerating, and by the time we got into October, I was kind of like, 'How did we get here?'

"I also learned you've got to trust God that it's possible to do something like this," he noted. "It doesn't matter what your age is. So often people think, 'Well, that person is exceptionally gifted' or 'That person really had the right resources. I couldn't do that.' I'm just a completely ordinary guy, but I serve an extraordinary God.

"I just really want to say that it's possible for God to use you, if you'll just take the step forward and let Him do His work."


More information about Dollar for a Drink can be found at www.dollarforadrink.org.