Growing up in the small town of Covington Tennessee, I never could have imagined the unusual direction my life was going to take. In the early 90s while attending the University of Memphis, I moved into an apartment on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis and began working as a waitress at the historic Peabody Hotel, home of the famous Peabody Ducks.
Memphis felt very quaint to me in those days. I had no car so I took the bus to school, rode my bike to work, and spent my weekends with friends by the river or listening to blues music on Beale Street.
My sophomore year, needing a few extra credits, I signed up for a class I knew nothing about: African American Rhetoric. I was amused when I realized I was the only white person in the class. The teacher was a fascinating social activist who told first-hand stories about his experiences in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I was particularly struck by events that happened in my very own town.
Later that semester, I had an assignment to create three short videos for another class. I did one on my boyfriend and his band, the second one demonstrated my roommate’s Spam sandwich-making techniques and then, with no ideas left, I resorted to interviewing my African American Rhetoric professor. It was at that time that I really began to see my quaint southern environment through somewhat stark adult eyes, and it was an uncomfortable reality.
I had grown up in a world of not-so-subtle racial divide, which included my very own segregated prom, which occurred in the late 1980s. Although something was bugging me about the situation at the time, I still dressed up in my pink and white dress and went to the party.
I began to surmise that this was the still-lingering hangover from the extremely violent events of the 1960s that I was learning about in class. Just 20 years earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated less than a block away from my current college apartment. The ensuing riots effectively drove all middle class residents, business and anyone white out of the city and safely into the suburbs.
The downtown I was growing to love was still struggling to recover from the indelible scars that had been left behind by this “white flight.” But among the run-down buildings and still-closed shops, I was being immersed in a rich culture of blues music and black history, which I had been sheltered from during my formative years.
At school I began seeking a profession where I could work to unite rather than divide, and gravitated toward documentary film production after watching the provocative work of Maysles, Pennybaker and Wiseman.
After graduation, with a film degree in hand, I moved to New York City and began working for $40 a day as a production assistant for a cable TV show called, Biography. I felt like I was on my way up, even though I was still waiting tables at night in Times Square. Several years later I relocated to Los Angeles where I worked my way up the ranks, cranking out dozens of Biographies chronicling the lives of Hollywood legends – finally landing the job I had been dreaming of since college: television producer. I spent the next few years laying the foundation for my bright career in Hollywood. After all this was the goal… good money, name on the screen, meeting celebrities. I was heading toward my dreams. But soon the documentary genre started losing momentum to the voyeuristic enticement of reality shows. My first foyer into this new kind of programming was as the field producer on the first season of The Simple Life. Before I knew it I found myself spending two months on an Arkansas farm with Nicole Ritchie and Paris Hilton. The show became a pop-culture-phenomena and the next few years I moved around the reality show circuit. I was working on hit shows and the money was better than ever but for some reason I felt like something was still missing. In 2006, while producing a show called Extreme Weddings, I received a call from my brother saying he was going on a medical mission to Africa. I remember asking him a million questions about the trip. Who are you going to help? What are their problem? Do you need a TV producer to come along? Maybe I can hit up some Hollywood people to donate money.
But it was a subsequent conversation with a doctor who was the team leader that changed the course of my life. I remember the moment as clear as day when I asked him this question: “What frustrates you most about the work?”
He told me that it absolutely infuriated him to travel to the same villages year after year, to find the same people, sick with the same illnesses. He said, “It’s the water! As long as they continue to drink the same dirty water, they are going keep getting sick!” Water? To me that seemed so basic. I wash my car, water my garden, go swimming, flush my toilet. Surely there was a way I could help figure this one out. So I gathered my closest friends and armed with nothing more that our laptops around the kitchen table, we started learning as much as possible about the water crisis. We thoroughly investigated the problem and then began researching solutions. We explored everything from water filters, to chlorine tablets, to clean water straws before coming to the conclusion – water wells!! “We are going to give these folks a water well!”
Only a few months later we held our first “friend”raiser where we collected $7000 – enough to fund two wells at that time. My first trip to Africa was to witness the installation of these projects. That was six years and 140 wells ago. Once I got into the field, got to know the villagers and learned of the struggle first-hand, it was impossible to go back to my Hollywood existence and simply forget about them. Over the past few years I have slowly transitioned from directing camera crews to directing drilling crews. I now spend half the year in Africa, sometimes sleeping in a hut for weeks at a time with no running water or electricity. I work with villagers, community leaders and our local teams to constantly refine and improve our program. Determined to dodge the charity pitfall of simply giving handouts, which reduces people and damages their spirit, we are instead developing a solid strategy that engages the community in every aspect of the projects. This ensures the sustainability of the water point and really helps empower the communities, but it is a lot harder than simply throwing money at the problem. It is easy to install a well. The hard part is making sure it serves the community by uniting them in the care and maintenance of the project, as well as all decisions about how it is managed (we require active Water Committees before we begin any project).
We now focus primarily on large rural schools and have segued into sanitation as well. Several years ago we teamed up with a group of Australian engineers to develop an alternative to the filthy pit latrines that litter the African landscape in various levels of decay.
We now install the Drop in the Bucket Eco-Sanitation Pour Flushing Toilets, which utilizes a simple, but innovative, sewage processing system and lasts for decades. We are also officially registered as a non-government organization (NGO) in Uganda and South Sudan. And we are a member of UWASNET (Uganda Water and Sanitation NGO Network).
We have an office in Gulu, Uganda, on the border of Uganda and South Sudan. It consists of an office filled with maps and binders containing our collected data; a storage room full of metal, PVC, pump parts and roundabouts; and a small bedroom in the back where I often stay. We have city water but no plumbing, so we have a pit latrine and bathing shelter. We are also opening another office in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, at the southern border of Darfur
Of course, I look around and wonder how my life made this shift – from interviewing Tom Cruse one minute to inspecting latrines and encouraging the use of toilet paper the next. My experience in Hollywood actually transitioned into rural Africa quite easily. Logistics are logistics, whether they are on the set of a TV show or deep in a rural village. It’s a matter of connecting problems with solutions. So just like in the beginning, with my portable printer and laptop still in tow, I have adapted my Hollywood skill set to addressing the water crisis directly in the communities that are suffering, with the assistance of the people who live there. But unlike Hollywood, this doesn’t end when you deliver the show to the network. People’s lives are at stake. The bar is high. So now it is again my mission to unite, but this time I am trying connect the people who are struggling for their lives with others who can help them. These days most of our donations come from ordinary folks… classrooms, groups, families and individuals. If someone funds a well for $5500 we place a tile on it with an inscription of their choice. This way they can feel a personal connection to the community they are helping and vice versa. There is no denying that we all have an impact on each other. Why not let yours be a good one? Once you know, it’s impossible to turn away.