Doc Hendley: Water and Life
PHOTO: Doc Hendley addressed the opening session at the U.S. Tour Operators Association's Annual Conference and Marketplace in Chicago last week. (Photo by David Cogswell)
It’s not often at the opening session of a conference that you see people wiping tears from their eyes, but that was what happened when Doc Hendley, founder of Wine into Water, an organization devoted to providing access to clean water, spoke at the U.S. Tour Operators Association’s conference in Chicago last week.
In 2009, CNN selected Hendley to be a CNN Hero. He is now the world famous author of a book called “Wine to Water: A Bartender's Quest to Bring Clean Water to the World.” But Hendley opened his presentation by saying he’s really a very ordinary person.
“I’m one of the more imperfect and average, maybe even below average people you will meet in your entire life,” he said. He did not excel in school. He was not a distinguished athlete. Twelve years ago he was a bartender in Boone, North Carolina.
“When I got to the point where I got to be a bartender I thought I had arrived at life,” he said. “For a guy like me, that’s about as good of a job as I ever thought I would get. It’s pretty decent money. It’s really fun. I thought, ‘This is it for me.’ That was about as much as I could ever expect out of life. And I was happy there.”
For Hendley, the bar was community.
“I could be sitting in my bar at Happy Hour and you’d have all walks of life,” he said. “You’d have a CEO of a company in a white collar next to a construction worker next to a school teacher next to a stay-at-home mom, and they were all on the same playing field there. No one was looking up or down at anyone else. They’re all there to decompress a little bit, forget about their day, and have a good conversation. It was a community and one of the first ones I ever felt welcome in and a part of.”
And then something happened to change his life.
“Around December of 2003 I learned that there was a water crisis facing our world,” said Hendley. “More importantly, I learned that more young children around the world are losing their lives because of something I have coming out of my tap every single day.”
He didn’t know if there was anything he could do about it, but he decided to try.
He started hosting events in his bar to raise money for the cause. He invited people in his community to come to the events, presented music and he asked people to donate whatever they wanted to. Soon he built up tens of thousands of dollars. But he didn’t know how to channel the money into the cause.
His research turned up an appropriate organization in North Carolina to whom he offered the money. By the time he had finished his interview with the charity’s leaders they had offered him a job. They offered to send him to the needy places, teach him the work of providing clean water, and let him use the money he had raised to support whatever programs he wanted to support.
In August 2004 he took off for Darfur, Sudan. It was the beginning of the Darfur genocide and the camp he visited soon became crowded with thousands of refugees. The village had no water source.
It was bad enough before the genocide. The people of the village spent four or five hours a day walking to get water. The number one cause of premature death of children in the village was diarrheal disease because the water they did get was so polluted it looked like coffee.
“We changed their water system,” he said. “We put a well in the middle of their camp so that instead of walking four or five hours they walked four or five minutes for water. The whole town changed. These kids had hours on their hands, and we partnered with another organization and built a school. They had never had the opportunity before. The women had four or five more hours a day to be productive, so they were out getting firewood and bringing more income to their families. The entire community began to pull itself out of poverty because they had access to something we take for granted every single day.”
“It was probably the first successful anything I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. Nothing had ever made him feel the way he did when I saw so many lives changed.
But the country was at war and soon the government of Sudan brought helicopter gunships and bombed the village, shot up the water system and beat some of Hendley’s crew.
“That’s when I realize this was not going to be as easy as I had anticipated,” said Hendley.
The rebel groups “didn’t work with NGOs or charities or westerners like me because they didn’t trust us,” he said. “They thought we could be spies or something from the government. But I was able to work and build relationships with them because I viewed my work differently than a lot of others. A lot of groups would come in with food or water and get out as quickly as they could. They would drill a well and before nightfall they’d be back in their safe, air conditioned environment before things could get bad. They’d kick food off the back of a truck for thousands of people as fast as they can and boom! They were back before nightfall.”
Hendley tried a different approach. He went to a rebel group based near the village and approached the leader. He had been working on Arabic, but he had a translator to make sure he didn’t say the wrong thing. He tried some of the phrases he had learned and he gradually saw the rebel leader’s face soften and smile.
Hendley said to the rebel leader, “Can I come back with you to where your village is and hang out with you? I’d like to talk to you about your water situation and see if I can do something to fix it ‘cause I’ve got nowhere to go.”
The rebel leader looked at his men, with their guns and ammunition, and then at Hendley and his translator, who had no guns, and decided to take him up on his offer. Hendley went with them to their village. He met their families and joined in a feast with them.
“And that was all it would take to build trust with them,” he said, “to sit with them, share a meal, spend a few days for him to see that I’m not there to take anything away from them or give anything away about them and that he could trust me. And for me to see that I could trust him. All it would take was a meal.”
After that, the rebel leader introduced him to other community leaders.
“He would use his satellite phone to call ahead to other leaders and let them know, ‘Hey, I’m going to send a guy to you. Make sure you protect him and take care of him because he’s going to help us with our water.’”
That was an important lesson.
“That was the first day I realized that it’s so important not just to go do our work in an area, but to take what I learned in the bar that is so important,” said Hendley. “The reason I loved bartending so much had nothing to do with the drinks or the music. It had everything to do with the community and the people I got to share my life with every single day.”
Under the protection of the rebel groups, Hendley was able to work in what the UN called “no go” areas building wells and providing water for thousands of people. But it was extremely dangerous.
“Many of those wells would be shot up by the government because they realized water could be a weapon,” said Hendley. “They could take water from the community and make them have to run away or cause a larger number of deaths by polluting the water.”
Eventually Hendley became a target, too.
“They ambushed my convoy, tried to kill me and my guys, shot up our vehicles really good and then after that they bombed my men along the side of the road, smashed them with their guns, stripped them naked to humiliate them, stole our supplies.”
Just before Hendley was to complete his year in Darfur, the government captured Ismael, one of the local people who had become a friend and worker in the water projects. The soldiers put him in a ditch and executed him.
“So instead a celebration on my last couple of days, Ismael’s father and brothers came to me and asked me to come to help them bury their son and their brothers,” he said. “That was a difficult day. I was honored that the father and the brothers would invite me to be a part of this. They knew I was from a very different background. I’m a simple country boy from the South of the United States. But they saw in me that I loved and cared for my guys even if their background was different from mine.”
But it was also a terrible burden because Ismael was a father of three and a husband. If he had not been working for Hendley, he might still be alive.
“I had no wife or kids, no one to come home to,” he said. “Why was it that I got to live and he didn’t?”
A couple of days later he was back home. He was crushed and didn’t know how to gather the strength to move forward. He would have given up and gone back to the bar, but luckily he met a woman who was to become his wife. She helped him find the strength to return to the water projects.
“She helped me on those days when I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning,” he said. “I didn’t want to do this anymore. I couldn’t understand how humanity could do such things to each other in places like that. I couldn’t understand it. I still can’t understand it. And to see it right in front of you. I didn’t get it.”
He tried to return to the bar, but he realized he was not the same person he had been before. It took a year, but he did return to helping people gain access to clean water in Ethiopia, Cambodia, Haiti and other places.
The audience was silent as Hendley told his story, except for a sniffle here and there. As he concluded many people wiped their eyes and everyone stood to applaud.
Jerre Fuqua, president of Travcoa and USTOA’s outgoing chairman, thanked Hendley and said, “Your story is absolutely amazing. I want to thank you for reminding us of something so special, and that’s that one person can really make a difference.”
More by David Cogswell
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