In 2006, I went to Guatemala with Rotary International on my first humanitarian project. The purpose of that trip was to install stoves in the homes of the Mayan Indians. While there, I was able to talk with the top Guatemalan Rotarian. I told him I was about to become president of my Rotary Club in Florence, Oregon, and I wanted to know how I could help the poor in his country.
Without hesitating, he told me to supply clean drinking water, because people were getting sick and children were dying.
I was apprehensive. My club had never applied for a Rotary matching grant, I didn’t know how to fill out the paperwork, and my club didn’t have any money in our budget. Plus, I was 71 years old — quite old to be starting on this new journey. But I remembered seeing the look on the sick children’s faces.
In order to apply for a Rotary matching grant, I needed to define a project, find a host Rotary Club in Guatemala to be my partner, and raise seed money for the grant. I was introduced to a Rotarian from the largest Rotary Club in Guatemala who also was the wholesaler of a $50 in-house water filter. That covered the project and the host club. Now, I needed to get the money. I decided to go for a $25,000 matching grant, which meant I had to raise $7,000. My district would match my club donation, and the Rotary Foundation would match my club at 50 percent and the district at 100 percent. I held a fundraiser, which netted $3,000. I then contacted the 70 other club presidents in my district and asked for their support. This was grueling, but I finally was able to get enough money to proceed. The filters were delivered, and we were able to help 4,500 people.
After that very rewarding experience, I decided to put together a $50,000 grant. My club completed a few of those. I then solicited other clubs in my district to be the primary partner for their own grants. I went back to Guatemala to ask Rotary Clubs to be the host partners, and I started to contact Rotary Clubs from other parts of the country and Canada. We were doing great, but then Rotary started a new program which meant I couldn’t serve Guatemala for three years. I was devastated.
Just then, I received an email from someone I didn’t know asking me to be their friend. I thought it was spam. Then I received a second and third request from people around the country. I looked into it and found out it was Facebook. I am now back in business.
I started to get Rotary friends from around the world. I asked them if they wanted to do a water grant, and many were very excited to have this opportunity. I had them fill out a form that explained their need and their project. I then proactively found them a Rotary Club partner outside of their country, because the Rotary Foundation requires two partners to fund a grant. I asked Rotarians from around the world to be my Facebook friends, to the point that I am at the maximum number of 5,000 allowed.
It was very easy to find projects, but not so easy to find partners. On Facebook, I posted projects and told stories with lots of photos. It then clicked. Last year I helped put together or participated in 63 grants, and this year I expect to do more. Some of the earlier clubs are on their second or third grants.
In order to find Rotary Club partners, I have given hundreds of Rotary Club programs, talked at district conferences in all parts of the country, and spoken at president-elect training conferences that had as many as 500 attendees. My talks are about motivating Rotarians to take action on their dreams, to get rid of negative thoughts, so they can also live this life-changing experience.
Of the hundreds of Rotarians who have expressed an interest in water, very few actually follow through and do a grant. When I ask them why they haven’t done a grant, the biggest excuse is that their club doesn’t have any money. In the past, I just advised them to hold a fundraiser. Most did not. I determined that I had to solve this problem, so they could get rid of this obstacle. I founded Global Run 4 Water to motivate clubs to take action and raise the necessary funds in order to complete a grant. Our website shows many ways to organize an event, whether it’s a 5K, a 10K, a marathon, or a stroll around the park. I gathered a passionate group of Rotarians from around the world to be on my board. Our goal was to raise a million dollars as soon as possible. One event in India had 9,000 children participating. Each was given a bright yellow hat with our Global Run logo on it.
I also recently partnered with Pure Charity, a website that helps charities raise money for humanitarian projects. It allows me to post projects that I am working on. The first one was for a water project in Peru. My campaign was to run a local 5K to raise money. I’m 78 years old, and this would be my very first race. I sent an email to everyone on my contact list — about 1,800 people. The donations came pouring in. My theory is that if you are doing a good thing and you ask for support in a nice way, your friends can’t resist, mostly because they want to help you.
When I am finished, most of the world will know about this terrible water problem, and we will have shown them an easy way to support us. This is my passion in life. I am not compensated. I spend hours every day trying to spread the word, find projects and then find partners. When I started, I had a goal to supply clean drinking water to one million less fortunate people. I am now very close to accomplishing this goal. So, what’s next? I now have a huge support group, and many are bringing in new supporters every day. This group will help me get to two million people served and in a lot shorter period than the first million.
George Lewis ’56, a retired stockbroker and former professional baseball player, is a member of the Wagner Athletic Hall of Fame and was named a Wagner College Alumni Fellow in 2009. He now lives in Florida. Learn more about George Lewis’s work by visiting Water Team International online. Or, send him a friend request on Facebook!