Tis the season to be jolly… and the season to spread joy to friends, family and beyond.  Still, many feel quite a bit of stress leading up to the holiday season and have little time “to be jolly” until the moment Santa knocks on the door. As a result of a holiday trip that my husband Joan and I made to Ethiopia in December 2008, our holiday season is indeed a jolly time of the year because it’s when we can assess the results of our fundraising efforts during the past 11 months.

With just a few weeks remaining in the year, we are right on target for our goal to fund four new water wells to poor communities in rural Ethiopia in 2012. It means that by this time next year more than a 1,000 children and families will have access to clean water. Now that fills my heart with joy!

At Christmas time four years ago, my husband and I made our first trip to Ethiopia together with our dear friend Sorca Holmes.  One reason for the visit was that we wanted to learn more about the country and its people as we were on the waiting list to adopt a child from Ethiopia.  Another reason was Sorca’s dream of supporting a water project in a country where lack of access to water is a daily struggle.

Ethiopia is one such country and, based on recommendations from friends-of-friends in the country, we contacted the American non-profit organization, A Glimmer of Hope, to find out how we could get involved. With Sorca’s and my previous ties to Texas, through years living and working in San Antonio, it was quite ironic that the organization our friends in Ethiopia recommended was an Austin, Texas based NGO!

While in Ethiopia we learned that it is the women’s and young girls’ chore to fetch water for the family while the men work in the fields.  The vast majority of Ethiopians are farmers and live on less than $1 per day.

Children as young as two-years-old start helping out in the search for water, and many walk 3-5 hours every day to the nearest water source.

That means climbing mountains and passing through valleys in sweltering heat and freezing winds, often on bare feet, with a plastic jug weighing 40 lbs. strapped to their tiny backs with the help of a single rope.

We saw countless women collecting water from puddles and streams so dirty that I would not want to put my feet in the water.  It’s smelly, green, and often full of leeches.  Cows and goats stand right next to the women, in the water, and even they get sick and die from the contamination.

No wonder that 80% of all diseases in Ethiopia are caused by polluted water and that every year 250,000 Ethiopian children under the age of five die from diarrhea.

Returning to our home in Barcelona, Spain marked by our experience in Ethiopia but with the fortune of having connected with A Glimmer of Hope, Joan and I decided to start a non-profit fundraising campaign to sponsor new wells in Ethiopia in cooperation with AGOH.  We called the campaign “Water is Life”, and engaged family and friends in Spain, Sweden, USA and elsewhere to help us.

The response has been very encouraging as we have found that people are longing to get involved with an important cause, especially when they know that the money goes directly to where the need is greatest. AGOH also sends us photos of the wells that we sponsor and the families benefitting from them. It’s another very jolly moment of the year when we get to share those images with our supporters.  So far Water is Life has raised more than $60,000 and funded 12 wells.

A Glimmer of Hope is truly a non-profit organization with their own endowment that pays for all the overhead costs, so that 100% of all donations go straight to constructing the wells.  They have constructed more than 6,700 wells in Ethiopia since starting their work there in 2000.

Nowadays, next to spending time with my three-year-old son, Dawit, who we brought home from Ethiopia in 2010, my favorite thing in the world is going back to Ethiopia to visit our wells and the communities nearby.

It’s easy to fall in love with this beautiful country and its wonderful, friendly and hard working people.  Ethiopia is a large country, almost twice the size of Texas, and very mountainous. To get to the location of some of our wells we spend days driving through the striking landscape on bumpy, mostly unpaved roads.

On my most recent trip, in June this year, we visited Tercha in the south of the country where several of our wells are located. As we greeted the local people near one of the wells, one man took a good look at me, smiled and exclaimed “China-man”! The locals have heard that there are many Chinese working in their country in road construction, etc. but this man had obviously never met anyone of Asian decent before. Boy will he be surprised when he does!

It’s difficult to understand what a difference the well makes to the village people.  Not only does it mean better health, but it also frees time for the women to do other work at home.  The girls can go to school instead of walking the long and sometimes quite dangerous road to the water hole. So, access to clean water brings health, improved household income, better food security, improved education and so on…

Standing side by side with a woman and mother who wants to explain to you that she and her children are healthier because of the new well is about as gratifying as anything I’ve experienced. Holding the little hand of a child and looking into her eyes knowing that she will have clean water to drink and she will have a better chance of attending school and fulfill her dreams is simply priceless.

On this most recent journey I also visited a hospital in Tercha.  The Tercha Hospital, which serves half a million people, is as far from Western hospital standard as you can imagine.  What made me especially horrified was to see that there is no separate ward for sick children and infants. Critically ill children are sharing the same localities and breathing the same air as adults with airborne diseases like TB and pneumonía.  Visiting a room with sick and malnourished children absolutely broke my heart. A four-year old boy was so weak that his grandmother had to hold him up to sit. It’s an image that will never leave me.  Coming home I found myself with another huge task: to fund a children’s ward at the Tercha Hospital.  For this we will need to raise an estimated $150,000 during the coming year.  It’s a daunting task, but one that we have to complete.

One of the things I admire the most about American culture, as compared to my home country Sweden and my new home country, Spain, is the tremendous generosity and engagement in charity work so many Americans show.  In Europe the general attitude is that “we pay our taxes and the authorities should take care of the problems.”  Of course there is personal commitment, but not to the same extent.  Especially during my time working for U.S. Global Investors in San Antonio I learned that contributing to good causes and helping less fortunate people gives great personal satisfaction in return.  I guess it is partly that lesson learned, which is driving me now to try to improve life for people in one of the poorest parts of the world.  I realize that alone I can just do a little, but together we can do a lot!

Originally from Sweden, Johanna Thörnblad Vinyets currently lives in Barcelona, Spain and works as a marketing consultant for Meridian Fund Managers, Ltd. Johanna has an MBA from University of Chicago GSB and was VP of Communications at U.S. Global Investors Inc. in San Antonio from 1992 to 1998. She is a mother and a volunteer fundraiser for Austin, TX based NGO A Glimmer of Hope that has built more than 6700 water wells in Ethiopia since 2000. She can be reached through her fundraising campaign siteWater is Life.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org