By Kathy Chaffin
It was in December of 2003 when Doc Hendley — named one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes for 2009 — heard the phrase, "Wine to Water," repeating itself over and over in his head.
Photo: Seth Holtzman
Hendley had no idea what it meant, he said at Wednesday night's opening of the "Redesigning Our Future: National Environmental Summit for High School Students," cosponsored by the Center for the Environment at Catawba College and Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado.
Struggling as a senior communications major at N.C. State University at the time, he was on break, staying at his parents' house in Boone trying to go to sleep when he heard the three words that would change his life.
A songwriter/musician, Hendley thought they might be the start of some new lyrics and picked up a pencil and pad he kept by his bed and wrote "Wine to Water" with a big question mark underneath.
"What's the deal with water?" he wondered. "Is there something I'm supposed to know about water? On top of that, wasn't that backwards? Wasn't there some really cool dude a long time ago that did it the other way around?
He went downstairs to his parents' computer and typed in "water issues, water problems."
Pages of articles on the problems of water scarcity and unclean water in Third World countries came up. One reported that 1.1 billion people in the world didn't have access to clean water.
"I remember looking at it and thinking, man, that is not right because I'm not a mathematician, but there's only 6 or 7 billion people in the world and one of those billion doesn't have access to clean water."
Hendley said he was sure he would have heard about it if that was true, so he kept searching. Sure enough, the United Nations substantiated the report over and over.
Reading on, Hendley learned that more young children died annually from unsanitary water than anything else. Yet, the need for clean water in Third World countries was receiving very little funding, he said, and very little attention from the media.
Hendley said something happened to him that night. "I don't know how to explain it, but for the first time in my life I really felt passionate about something," he said. "I didn't really know what kind of impact I could have ... but I wanted to do something about this because it seems like nobody else was doing anything about it, and that wasn't right."
Despite the fact that his family members had made great achievements in their lives, Hendley said he had resigned himself "to having a very average, mediocre life.
"I wasn't going to be able to have an impact on the world," he said. "And I believed that loud voice inside of me that said, 'You're nobody. You're just a regular old person.' "
He had never been particularly driven, selecting communications as his major only because the female-male ratio of students was 80 to 20 percent. He spent a lot of time riding his motorcycle and worked as a bartender to earn extra money.
When his break was over, Hendley returned to Raleigh a changed man. Though he had never even attended a fundraiser, he decided to organize a "Water to Wine" event at the restaurant where he worked and raised $6,000 for clean water efforts within a month and a half of hearing those words.
After that, another restaurant owner who had attended asked him to hold one there. The events continued, and Hendley set up a post office box for people to send donations. Within a period of months, he said, "I'm literally sitting on tens of thousands of dollars."
Because he had no idea how to personally provide clean water to Third World countries, Hendley said he looked for an established organization already doing that type of work. His search for a nonprofit that donated a high percentage of contributions towards helping people led him back home to Boone to Samaritan's Purse, which had been running a well drilling organization in eastern Africa for 20 years.
When he talked to Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and government relations, he asked Hendley why he wanted to donate the money. "I just told him, 'I don't know why,' " he said, " 'but I know that something happened to me a few months ago and I don't ever want to go back to who I was before that night because now I feel like something bigger than myself.
"For once in my life, I feel like I'm valuable. For once, I feel like I'm contributing instead of just taking all the time and doing stuff for me.' "
Instead of accepting his money, Isaacs offered Hendley a job learning to install water systems.
"I was blown away," Hendley said. When asked where he wanted to go, he said wherever the problem was worse.
That would be Afghanistan, where 85,000 children under the age of 5 die every year from unclean water, he was told, or Darfur in the Sudan, where the problem was just as bad, but posed great danger to aid workers due to the ethnic genocide being conducted by the Janjaweed, an Arab government-recruited militia.
Estimates of native farmers murdered in the genocide go as high as 400,000 while 2,500,000 are believed to have been systematically displaced.
Six months after holding his first fundraiser, Hendley left for Darfur, learning how to install water systems and drill wells. He and his workers were shot at and one — who was raising money so his wife and children could eat — was even executed, but Hendley continued.
"I almost lost my life a few times," he said. "I had to do a lot of soul searching — is it really worth it? I could go back home and sit down and play a video or guitar, work in a restaurant, go back to being normal, right? But I didn't have to think about it long because, again, I remembered who I was just a few months before that, and my life was really just for myself ...
"And yet now I may not make it out of this place, but I'd rather not make it back and die doing what I love than to go back home and live to be 90."
Using the same skills of relating to people as he did as a bartender and even learning the native language enough to communicate with the rebels fighting the Janjaweed – who were also killing aid workers – Hendley was able to befriend some of them to get inside their villages to provide clean water.
After returning home in August of 2005, the suffering he had seen in Darfur, including villagers being massacred by the Janjaweed, led Hendley to continue building his Wine to Water organization. In 2007, it became an official 501(c)3.
Since then, Wine to Water has raised enough money to dig wells in Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, India, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Peru. Hendley and his staff responded to the earthquake in Haiti as soon as it happened, continuing to provide more than 500 water purification systems and water purification efforts there.
Hendley was introduced by Sarah Moore, who said her first assignment after being hired as a Center for the Environment intern helping with the summit, was to find an inspirational speaker for Wednesday night's opening event in Hedrick Little Theater.
Moore, a senior environmental education major from Davie County, said she didn't have to think twice about who to ask. Hearing Hendley being interviewed on National Public Radio a couple of years before had inspired her to work to make a difference in the world, and she said she wanted the students at the summit to hear him, too.
Junior and senior high school students traveled from all over the country to attend the five-day event. Many of them said they were inspired by Hendley and spent a couple of hours talking with him at a reception held afterward in the Peeler Crystal Lounge.
To learn more about Doc Hendley and his Water to Wine organization, log onto www.winetowater.org.
The Center for the Environment at Catawba College was founded in 1996 to provide education and outreach centered on prevalent environmental challenges and to foster community-oriented sustainable solutions that can serve as a model for programs throughout the country. For more information, visit www.centerfortheenvironment.org or www.campaignforcleanair.org.
Q&A with Doc Hendley: CNN Hero Provides Clean Drinking Water for Third World Countries
Redesigning Our Future: National Environmental Summit for High School Students
Center for the Environment
Environmental Science & Studies