Bringing clean water to developing communities
Every so often, people experience a moment of realization that alters their perception of the world and motivates them to change their actions and goals. For Matt Shepperd, a high school mission trip to San Fernando, Mexico, did just that.
The trip was the first in a long list of Matt’s international travels and his first time to look upon the faces of those living in extreme poverty. Malnutrition and diarrhea from water-borne illnesses were commonplace among people living in the undeveloped settlements, as was death, especially in children younger than five years old.
“When we’re faced with need,” says Matt, “when we learn about need, we have only two options: We turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not happening, or we choose to engage and do something about it. At the end of the day, there really is no middle ground.”
Matt chose to do something about it.
The mission trip inspired him to seek a double major in speech communication and sociology, a path that led him to further humanitarian and community development work.
Today Matt, a Georgetown resident, and co-director Jim Hicks run Thirst Relief International, a nonprofit organization that works to provide access to clean water in developing communities, empowering local individuals to transform their communities and foster sustainability.
“Of the most serious issues on the planet, a lack of clean water is still a large issue that is plaguing people around the world,” says Matt. “Our mission is to overcome death and disease resulting from the consumption of contaminated water by providing safe, clean drinking water to those in need around the world.”
The World Health Organization reported in 2008 that “more than 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related causes. Nearly all deaths, 99%, occur in the developing world.”
Thirst Relief, a 501c3, works in eight developing nations: Haiti, Brazil, India, Cameroon, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, and Tanzania.
“Water is the first building block to any type of community development—it’s necessary to life; it’s necessary for agriculture,” says Matt. “If someone doesn’t have taps in their home or in their community, they’d walk to their nearest water source. Oftentimes, that’s miles away from where they live. So they’ll go to a river, a stream, a dirty lake, or whatever they can find. Water retrieval falls predominantly on women and children. So, typically when children are old enough—about seven—to carry the weight, the government gives them a jerrycan, a five-gallon container that, when filled with water, weighs about forty pounds.”
That’s where Thirst Relief International steps in. “Obviously, it would be great if we could saturate these communities with wells, and we’re working on it. Our work itself, just dealing with water, is water filtration, water catchment, water well-drilling, and well repair,” Matt explains.
“It’s definitely not something you compartmentalize into just a job,” says Matt, who has been working in community development for about ten years. “It’s a lifestyle. This is something we feel called to do.”
To volunteer, donate, or learn more about Thirst Relief International, visit www.thirstrelief.org.