In the last 24 hours I have been keeping track of how little I value water. I wake up, use the bathroom and flush the toilet (there go 2 gallons), I turn on the faucet to wash my face and brush my teeth. Even though I am careful to conserve, I am sure another 3 gallons have gone down the drain. I make coffee (with fresh water) then head upstairs for a shower, rinse breakfast dishes and run the dishwasher. Before 9 am in the morning, I am sure I have used at least 20 gallons of water (probably more). Can you imagine having no access to clean water? Take a minute to think about how you would live without one of the most basic necessities.
Even if we can’t imagine life without plenty of water, there are literally billions of people around the world that face this reality EVERY day. I had the pleasure of meeting a woman, Kristen Kosinski, who created The Samburu Project that has already helped over 20,000 Kenyans gain access to clean water. When I heard about Kristen, a million questions raced through my head: How did she get started on this mission? Why did she chose Africa and where does she find the strength to keep this project going after giving birth to a son who is now almost two years old?
Kristen and I met at her office in Venice, a small space in the back of a local church. The office is small and she shares it with three others. Her personality filled up the room and my initial impression is that this is a gal who isn’t afraid of much. Kristen, and her 9 brothers and sisters, grew up outside of Pittsburgh in what she describes as a conservative family. As a young girl, she recollects she had visions of herself in Africa, surrounded by natives in colorful dress. When asked why, she says it is hard to put a finger on the answer. The best explanation she can think of is her fondness for the volumes of National Geographic that her grandfather used to share with her.
As Kristen grew up, she has countless recollections of her strong desire to travel to Africa. However, she had no means for pursuing her dream because she was young and didn’t have the resources to realize her dream. She attended college and after graduation became a teacher for Teach for America, an organization committed to eliminating education inequity in low-income communities. She was placed in Houston and taught fifth grade for the next two years; then, moved to Los Angeles to teach for another year. After working with Teach for America, she wasn’t sure what her next pursuit would be, but after talking to one of her brothers she secured an interview for a job with a casting director in the area. Before long, she was completely entrenched in the entertainment industry and all of the excitement that Hollywood has to offer. As her career progressed she joined Paramount and oversaw programming for some of the most popular shows on television including: JAG, Becker and Girlfriends. She worked with and incredible group of people and had a boss that could only be described as amazing.
In early 2005 there was a shake-up in the executive ranks of Paramount (which was owned by Viacom). Shortly thereafter, several of Kristen’s colleagues were let go- including the boss who guided her career for years. The manner in which this turn of events transpired caused Kristen to do some deep thinking. Was her job on the line? Even if she wasn’t let go immediately, would she spend her prime years committed to company that might find her dispensible? As her most current employment contract neared the end of it’s term, she planned a trip to Africa. At the time she wasn’t sure if her contract would be renewed or if she would be let go. But in her fearless manner, she booked the trip anyway and continued to negotiate her contract. As the company came back to her several times, she found herself in a tough position: take the contract and play it safe or stand her ground and risk losing everything. She stood her ground and the contract was not renewed. In the back of her mind was that nagging feeling that she needed to move on with her life. Something was pulling her to Africa and she was interested to find out what it was.
The way Kristen explained the culmination of her ten year career was that on Friday, June 19th, 2005 she had a farewell lunch with her co-workers, packed the last of her belongings; and, by dinnertime she had boarded a plane on her way to Kenya for three months. A short wave of panic washed over her as she asked, “What I am doing?” While she did have a game plan (a driver to pick her up at the airport and a place to stay) she wasn’t sure where her journey would take her emotionally. She knew she wanted to find a purpose in Africa- she just wasn’t sure what it would be.
She arrived near the gates of The Samburu Game Reserve and met a woman named Rebecca. Rebecca was the leader of a woman’s group called an “Umoja”- a group of women who have left or been cast out of their villages. Rebecca was well versed in English and was able to communicate with Kristen that she was all about empowering the women of Africa. Kristen couldn’t believe her good fortune. It was almost as if some universal force had brought her and Rebecca together. With Rebecca by her side, Kristen was introduced to countless African women that shared their stories of life, survival, tragedgy and triumph. The one theme that perisisted through almost every story Kristen heard, was the lack of clean drinking water. Since the women of the villages spend a majority of their day walking to find water there is no time for income generating activity And, along those same lines, the daughters who help their mothers in the quest for water are left with not time for education. The water that they do encounter is often filled with bacteria and disease as these watering holes are shared with wild animals who deficate in the vacinity. Illness and death run rampant among the villagers- both children and adults suffer equally. Kristen learned the only way to solve this problem is to drill wells in order to reach the water table that is 70 Meters below the Earth’s surface.
Sitting in my home, typing this blog it is hard for me to imagine that there are people living in such dire circumstances. I think about it for about 24 hours then I get on with my life. Kristen Kosinski is different. She decided that she would not come home and put the experience behind her. She knew she had to take action. Even if she was only able to impact a handful of people, she was going to seize the opportunity do as much as she could.
Mid-September, Kristen flew back to Los Angeles. She hit the ground running, she filed documents to create charitable organization within weeks of her return. She hosted her first fundraiser in October, another in April and was able to raise approximately $65,000 within a year. During her year back in Los Angeles, she survived on her savings and spent countless hours researching how to drill a well and calling Africa to find professionals who could help her complete her project. Initially, she estimated that it would cost $2,000 to drill each well, but she quickly learned the cost was closer to $10,000 (her first small setback). She stayed in contact with Rebecca, who was all set to help her oversee the drilling. Almost one year to the day, Kristen flew back to Africa to oversee her first well drill. Upon arrival, she found that Rebecca had vanished (her second small setback). She proceeded to meet with the company she had contracted to drill her wells, only to find out that their organization was not competent enough to complete the project (deal breaker).
So, here she is in Africa, without her main contact and without a drilling company. Thank goodness for Plan B. She had been in talks with a 2nd well driller who was unwilling to make a deal until they met face to face. As a last resort, Kristen called on this company and was able to negotiate a last minute deal. She explains that the actual process of drilling a water well is surreal. First, a geologist does his reasearch to find a water table, then drilling rig is directed to the ideal location, the rig revs up its engine as the drill bit digs into the earth- within an hour water is spraying up out of the hole and an all out celebration ensues: dancing, singing, laughing and celebration. A resource that has eluded these villagers for hundreds of years is now within reach. Amazing.
The details that Kristen shared were inspiring- but I am running out of space and time. Let me wrap up with some really important points. World water day is March 22nd and Kristen is organizing a Walk for Water in the South Bay scheduled for March 21st. I hope you all can participate. You really should visit the website for The Samburu Project- www.TheSamburuProject.org and learn more about this amazing organization. Finally, Kristen is a great example of the phrase “You are never too small to make a difference”. I hope you will read her story and realize that anyone of us has the power to impact the world- your impact can be big or small- but every little bit helps.