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One Man, Twenty-Six Wells….

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Eugene Nelson, succeeds where many non-profit organizations many times larger fail. Eugene is an electrical engineer at Intel and he gets one month off every year during which he travels to a small village in Cambodia where he installs wells and dramatically improves the quality of life for the village residents. He founded a non-profit, Blue Heart Charity and has installed 26 sustainable wells, solving the problem of contaminated drinking water for many.

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This is a typical water source ……

I met Eugene last week for the first time, and it was clear that his success was based on an understanding that there is much more to just digging the wells themselves! These were some of the things I took away from our meeting:

Eugene pointed out that there are a lot of different ways to help people but that he wanted to make sure that he was taking the smallest amount of money and making the largest amount of impact. He decided to do this by working towards a sustainable solution to the water crisis in a village in Cambodia with hand-pumped water wells.

I think his success comes from his focus on one village, rather than becoming fragmented and building wells in multiple areas.  For four years now, he has returned to the same village and has managed to build twenty-six wells; only couple with minor fixable issues. His tour guide and friend in Cambodia helps to maintain the wells while Eugene is away and when Eugene returns he compensates his guide for gas and labor. This is key—having a person on the ground in the area who can make sure that the wells continue to function between Eugene’s visits; the working relationship with his guide has now become a deep friendship.

Whenever you go into a developing area, it is important to know the territory and by focusing on the same village year after year, Eugene is very familiar with the resources and of course the people. On each trip, Eugene selectively chooses the well sites for the next year. He has conversations with the people who live there—he inquires if they have some land and are planning on growing food or crops (to sell in town and provide sustenance for their family)…… he looks for concentrations of women and children and makes sure there is a willingness to share the water source with others in the area. He looks for people often in remote areas who slip through the cracks because they are the ones who need help the most!

wells2.jpeg.scaled1000 The girl in the grey-stripped shirt is 13-years-old and responsible for all the little kids you see around her. Eugene told me, “She doesn’t smile much… I feel bad for her being so young and having so much responsibility. You know, I think this was the first time I saw her smile that whole time……”

Another important point Eugene made was that those who donate to Blue heart Charity, for building wells in Cambodia really want to experience a bit of the accomplishment themselves. They want to see the happiness and improved life-style that Blue Heart Charity’s wells create for people. Donors don’t just want to see money disappear from their account, so Eugene puts the Blue Heart Charity logo on each well with a cookie cutter and the name of the benefactor. He takes pictures of each well installation, and sends the picture to the donor so they can catch a glimpse of the impact that their contribution has brought the people in the village.

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Sustainable solutions that counteract water contamination and scarcity in developing areas are a Bank On Rain priority.

So, the experience that Eugene told me of really hit home. He built two wells for a man who every day hand irrigated two acres of eight-foot tall green beans (without a well). One well was for community access and the other he connected to a mechanized pump to irrigate the crops. The next year Eugene returned and this same man had two more acres of land with beans, cucumber, tomatoes, and jackfruit! The man’s house had a “bit more substance… some thicker walls”……..   Sustainable business = improved quality of life.

Buying local materials supports business in Cambodia, and Eugene sources 100% of the product needs for the wells locally.  He has cut the cost of building a well by 2/3—going from $600 to $200 per well—buying materials in bulk, developing relationships, and buying what he knows he needs. “It’s efficient; it’s not large,” he said, and having done it several times before I can see he knows what risks are involved and how to plan around them rather than spending hours on redundancy plans. Learn to do it and do it well and empower the people to do it in the future. I truly believe Eugene meets these criteria.

Some of the Blue Heart Charity wells serve 100 people and some only serve 12 but no matter how many, the wells have brought people together. “I’ve seen walls come down between neighbors; neighbors moving closer together to use and share responsibility for maintaining the well,” Eugene said.

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Eugene has truly become a part of the community. The community loves him and he loves them right back.

On his last night there the community got drums out and started playing music; one little girl just got up on his lap and started eating the food off his plate. Eugene not only brought the village clean water, but also happiness. Eugene spends one hour each day working on Blue Heart Charity related projects. “I have kids and around nine o’clock the house starts to get kind of quiet,” he said. “I use the hour that I used to spend watching TV, planning and fundraising, and sending a few emails. You know, just doing little things like this to keep the motivation going.”

It was a real life privilege to meet Eugene and hear the how and why his wells continue to function, sustain and improve the quality of life of all those he touches in Cambodia

Do you have any success stories like this one? Real people with real solutions related to water…. We’d love to hear about them in comments below or email at info@bank-on-rain.com

Emily Berg, Bank On Rain 2011 Intern and Researcher. THINK RAIN!

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Special thanks to my Bank On Rain mentor CASUDI Caroline Di Diego  for her help with this post.

Originally published July 11, 2011 on Posterous

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