Posted by: justinknabb | October 29, 2010

Justin Knabb’s Speech at the Villanova University Alumni Leadership Summit

It was an honor to be invited to Villanova University on October 7 to attend and speak at their annual Alumni Leadership Summit. Alumni representing a broad spectrum of ages, industries and interests were invited to the event, keynoted by General Anthony Zinni (who gave a very inspiring address on leadership in the 21st century!). I presented at a panel discussion titled “Politics, Social Justice and Economic Development in a Global Community” along with two other alumni: Katie Tobin VU ’04 (who has served under the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security as an attorney representing refugee rights) and Bridget Bucardo Rivera VU ’02 (who is currently overseeing microfinance initiatives for Catholic Relief Services in Zambia). Professor Suzanne Toton of the Villanova Univ. Peace & Justice Dept. was the panel moderator.

Here were my remarks to the audience that day:

It is always an honor to be back here at Villanova, as I am proud to have graduated from this fine university.  People that matriculate here tend to be deeply compassionate, gracious, and most importantly, they take action.  Clean waterOur non-profit organization–Water for Waslala–is a testament to that.  I must say I am also excited to be the youngest alumnus presenting at this summit, however, I just hope the University Development Office takes it easy on me and gives me some more time to develop professionally before calling me for money.

Since 2002, hundreds of students–myself included–have devoted thousands of hours to this cause to bring one of the most basic human rights–clean drinking water–to this impoverished community of 45,000 nestled deep in the jungles of Nicaragua.  What started as the effort of a few students to raise money for one community water system after a spring break trip to the region has now grown into a campus-wide effort running 7 years strong.

Today we are a lean NGO run by young professionals that provides the funding and technical expertise to build sustainable, cost-effective, gravity-fed water systems to this specific region.  With each new year, we gain more cross-functional leaders stepping up from across this university: for example, technical support from the College of Engineering, hygienic expertise from the College of Nursing, communications and grant writing support from Liberal Arts students, and strategic support from the School of Business.

So a simple movement has now swept our university and now has snowballed into an NGO– an NGO that was essentially formed to answer a challenge:

How do we make this truly matter to people who don’t know our friends in Waslala?  Our challenge is to make the gravity-fed water systems that we design and fund matter to our donors living thousands of miles away from this jungle.

This has been easier for the professors and students that have traveled to Waslala and have seen the plight of these people first hand.  We’ve spent mornings with people like Nelly Chavarria– a mother of four who rises before the sun to walk an entire kilometer to collect drinking water from an already polluted stream for her family.  We’ve seen her callused feet and her struggle to carry gallons of water on her shoulders up and down muddy, treacherous terrain.  And, naturally, we’re inspired to support her and provide her the means to offer clean drinking water to her family.

Girl carries bucket

As WfW’s treasurer, I have been fortunate over the years to open the envelopes sent to us with contributions.  All are inspiring, but some move me to tears and re-kindle the fire inside to keep running this project. One came last year, from a school bus driver from Mendham Township, NJ.  He heard one of our volunteers, Brian Strassburger, speak three years ago and was moved by Brian’s story.  In his letter the bus driver confessed that he did not have much money to donate personally, but that each day for an entire year, he would walk up and down his bus collecting the loose change that would fall from students’ pockets on their ride to school.  His check totaled $47.11, yet it was a powerful statement and it reinvigorates my own desire to do this work.  We will never stop telling others about the plight of our friends in Waslala, and fortunately, people such as this driver are listening and responding.

All this work of running an NGO is difficult.  The outcomes from our efforts are always unexpected.  And even though we run our charity on a part-time basis, to truly do it “right” we find that it really eats up a ton of time.

For example, our team has devoted hours upon hours of time writing grant applications that were never accepted.  Same with sending personalized donor letters.  We address our donors personally and we believe that our special touch will one day pay off.  We work hard on the ground in Nicaragua. Our engineers ride mules out to the communities, hacking through the jungle with machetes in order to traverse the rugged terrain. Yet, we are very proud of the progress we’ve made in Waslala in a relatively short amount of time.  Over 3,000 people that went without water just 6 years ago now have an unlimited supply of clean drinking water thanks to WfW-funded systems.

Walk for Water 2010

Walk for Water 2010

We have installed fully functional and sustainable systems in 11 communities.  We started as a just a few volunteers here at Villanova and now have a large, dedicated volunteer corps that runs an annual Walk for Water here at Villanova raising about $50k each year.  We started with $0 in our bank account and are on our way to half a million dollars raised for this cause.

We believe we have built a successful NGO because we are focused—we stay committed to a community that we know well, and we make sure that we construct our systems very, very well.

We are community driven—we do not send engineers down to Waslala to build the systems themselves; rather, we empower the citizens of each community to lay the PVC pipe themselves and put their own sweat equity into the effort.

We build in a self-sustaining way.  Community members are required to hold official meetings where they commit to a maintenance budget and schedule.  They also commit to not burning down precious jungle land that affects their community water source, and they are also educated about best practices in hygiene and other health issues.

And, we are passionate about this community because they are also passionate about us. As I mentioned earlier, I see it as a breakthrough when people such a school bus driver in NJ truly understand how clean drinking water is such a fundamental human right and are moved to act.  Yet, our friends in Waslala were moved to act to help us in a very powerful way several years ago.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit and devastated our shores, we received a letter in the mail from the parish in Waslala.  Inside was a letter and a check for about $100.  To summarize the letter, it read, “We are deeply sorry about the challenges you now face after the hurricane.  As you know, we do not have much here, but we can contribute something… and, after the disaster we held a collection at mass for a week and raised this money to help you.”Girl washing her hands

You know, true love knows no borders, no distance, and no economic condition.  Their letter was a testament to that.  We never forget the great spirit they have and we will never stop fighting for them too.  And may your own love and work span the globe, and hopefully even span into a jungle deep within Nicaragua.

Thank you.

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