Ryan’s Well of Life

Ryan’s Well of Life

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Ryan’s Well of Life

Feel the flame forever burn, Teaching lessons we must learn, To bring us closer to the power of the dream.

David Foster

When my son Ryan was six years old and in first grade, his teacher, Nancy, talked to his class about developing countries and how they could help people, particularly children, in other parts of the world. She explained that besides not having toys or enough food, some of them didn’t even have clean water. For these children sitting in their comfortable classroom in Kemptville, Ontario, the idea of children not having any toys, or enough food or water, had an enormous impact.

The principal had distributed a list that showed the costs of buying supplies in developing countries. A penny would buy a pencil, a dollar a hot meal, two dollars a blanket. Seventy dollars would buy a well. When Ryan heard people died because they didn’t have clean water, he was deeply affected. He came home that day and insisted he needed seventy dollars for class the next morning.

We thought it was very nice that he wanted to do something important, but we didn’t take it seriously. My husband Mark and I both do volunteer work, but Ryan was only six years old—and we just brushed it off.

The next day, Ryan came home very upset because he hadn’t been able to take the seventy dollars to school. People were dying, and he insisted he needed that money.

Mark and I discussed it, then explained to Ryan that seventy dollars was a lot of money. If he was really interested in doing something, however, he could earn it.

I drew a little thermometer on a sheet of paper and said, “This is how many dollars it takes to get to seventy, and if you’re prepared to earn it, we’ll give you extra chores.” He happily agreed, so we put an old cookie tin on top of the refrigerator and started giving him chores.

Well, Ryan worked and worked and worked. With every two dollars he earned, he got to fill in another line on the thermometer, then throw his money into the cookie tin. He never stopped working. Ryan vacuumed, washed windows and much more.

He did chores for the neighbours and his grandparents, picked up brush after an ice storm—and it all went right into the cookie tin! When we realized he was really serious, we thought, Okay, what will we do with the money once he’s raised it? We had no clue. After four months, Ryan was nearing his goal.

I called a girlfriend at CUSO (a Canadian International Development Agency) and asked her for suggestions.

“We can take it here at CUSO,” she replied. “But let me look around for a more appropriate organization that might specifically build wells.”

Brenda contacted WaterCan in Ottawa and set up a meeting for us. WaterCan is a Canadian nonprofit organization providing clean water and sanitation to people in developing countries.

In April 1998 we went for our meeting, and Ryan brought his cookie tin full of money. Nicole, the executive director, and Helen, her assistant, were very gracious, thanked him and told him how important his donation was. Then they told us it would cost a lot more than $70 to build a well—in fact, it would cost $2,000.

Ryan wasn’t concerned and replied simply, “That’s okay. I’ll just do more chores!”

News about what Ryan was doing got out, and soon we were getting calls from the media. When the Ottawa Citizen did a story on Ryan’s well, we began to receive donations at least once a week. People from all over were catching Ryan’s dream and were inspired to give.

A high school in Cornwall, Ontario, sold bottled water and presented WaterCan with a cheque for Ryan’s well for $228. Central Children’s Choir from Ottawa donated $1,000 for a Singing Well. The Ground Water Association of Eastern Ontario donated $2,700. And for every dollar Ryan raised, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) matched it two for one. It wasn’t long before Ryan had raised more than enough money for his well.

Ryan was invited to a board meeting to discuss details of the well. Gizaw, the engineer from Uganda who would design and build the well, was visiting from Africa. Ryan asked him: How long would it take to build the well? Where would it be built? And would he get a picture? When Gizaw asked Ryan where he would like the well to be built, Ryan decided that it would be best near a school.

Ryan’s well was built beside Angolo Primary School in Uganda, Africa, and was dedicated in April of 1999!

But Ryan’s efforts had only begun. Ryan’s entire school embraced his dream. First, a fund-raising project raised about $1,400. Then the school organized a pen pal letter-writing campaign between Ryan’s class and the students at Angolo Primary School.

CTV and several big newspapers did lead stories on the project and interviewed Ryan. I was concerned about all the attention going to his head. When I asked Ryan’s teacher, Lynn, about it she said, “I don’t think so. Ryan never talks about it unless someone asks.” She then told me the class had been raising funds throughout the year, and a WaterCan had been placed on her desk. One day she’d walked into her classroom and found Ryan was at the water can, picking his picture off the side. “I already have enough money for my well,” he explained. “This well will be for my class.”

One day Ryan said, “I’m going to keep working until everyone in Africa has clean water.” I thought, Oh, boy! I’d heard about encouraging your children to be confident and dream big dreams. I didn’t want to say, like I almost had when he asked for the seventy dollars, that he couldn’t make a difference. The truth was, he already had!

One night Ryan shared with us that one day, he would love to actually see his well. I replied, “Ryan, you will see your well. You might be twelve by the time we save enough money to visit Africa, but I promise you‚ will see your well.”

One day, when Ryan was over visiting our neighbours, he announced, “When I’m twelve, I’m going to go over to Uganda and see my well.” He wrote his pen pal Jimmy Akana in Uganda saying, “When I’m twelve, I’m coming to see you.” This news spread like wildfire through the school in Uganda, and all the children wrote back to their pen pals in Ryan’s class asking, “Are you coming with Ryan? Did you know Ryan is coming when he’s twelve?”

When Jimmy wrote back, he said, “I always drink from your well, and I thank you for the well. We will be so happy to see you in Uganda when you’re twelve.”

At New Years, our neighbours, the Paynters, presented Ryan with a very special gift—enough air miles to fly three people halfway to Uganda to visit Jimmy and his well! The Ottawa Citizen then posted a request for more air miles. As a result of those donations, and some help from Water Can, my husband and I were able to join Ryan. Together, we would all see the amazing well that has allowed Ryan’s friends in Uganda to have fresh, clean water everyday.

On July 27, 2000, we arrived by truck in Angolo, Uganda. As we got close, a small group of children saw us and began calling out, “Ryan! Ryan!”

Ryan was astonished that they knew his name.

“Everybody for a hundred kilometres knows your name, Ryan,” our companion Gizaw Shibru announced.

As we rounded a bend, we were stunned to see a crowd of about 5,000 children from nearby schools lining the roadside, waiting for us. As our truck approached, they excitedly began clapping rhythmically in welcome!

Ryan managed to wave a shy hello. A welcoming committee then led us all to Angolo Primary School. Ryan’s pen pal, Jimmy, was waiting for him, and after they said hello, Jimmy took Ryan’s hand and led him to the well for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. As we approached Ryan’s well, we were overcome with joy. It was adorned with flowers, and on the concrete was inscribed: “Ryan’s Well: Formed by Ryan H for Comm. of Angolo.”

A village elder spoke words of appreciation: “Look around at our children. You can see they’re healthy. This is because of Ryan and our friends in Canada. For us, water is life.”

Ryan has also raised money for drilling equipment so that all districts can experience having clean, life-giving water. To date, Ryan has raised over $100,000, which, when matched with CIDA funding, totals over $300,000!

Ryan is now eleven years old and still going strong. There is a Ryan’s Well Foundation. His dream has changed the lives of so many people, most of whom we will never meet. That special day in Uganda was one of the happiest days of my life, and it will live in my heart forever. Ryan ended that special day the same as usual, with his nightly prayer: “I wish for everyone in Africa to have clean water.” Ryan has shown me what the power of dreams can do.

Susan Hreljac
Kemptville, Ontario
As told to Darlene Montgomery

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