Interview: Ryan Hreljac, Ryan’s Well Foundation
In January 1998, a Canadian made a decision that would forever change their lives and thousands of people on the planet. Upon learning that many Africans became ill and died from drinking polluted water, he showed himself determined to help reverse that situation. Taken by an selfless altruism, he persuaded relatives, friends and people who had never seen before to engage in his idea: to build wells to provide clean water to beings that he and all his countrymen knew or had seen personally. But they were human beings so as any Canadian or born in another region of the planet. Two years later, he was more than 11,000 kilometers away, in Uganda, inaugurating the first of hundreds of wells that would help build.
This story would be a beautiful example of love of neighbor that anyone had been the protagonist. But what makes it even more special is that the Canadian in question was only six when he heard echoing within him inside and called the will to help people live with dignity. This is the story of Ryan Hreljac.
In an exclusive interview for the TerraGaia, Ryan, now 19, says details of the day he decided he had to do something to help people have clean water to consume, the reaction of the family, the motivation to get the money, the reaction of Ugandans in the opening day of the first well (“It was a day of celebration”), creating the foundation that bears his name and gives advice for those who want to be like him, dare. “To make a positive change in the world, you need to find something that you are passionate about and then you need to take steps to act. Although they may be very small steps, if you keep at it and never give up, your impact will grow year after year”, he says that ten years of activities, has completed over 630 projects in 16 countries, benefiting more than 700 000 people. A more than noble, even for someone whose name in Gaelic (Irish language), means “little king”.
By Antonio Carlos Teixeira, Editor of the TerraGaia Blog
TerraGaia – Your involvement with humanitarian causes began when he was a child. How old are you and what had led him to initiate a project to give people access to water for the African continent, a reality very different from yours then?
Ryan Hreljac – My story is really very simple. One day in January 1998, I was six years old and was sitting in my Grade 1 classroom. My teacher, Mrs. Prest, explained that people were sick and some were even dying because they didn’t have clean water. She told us that some people walked for hours in Africa and sometimes it was just to get dirty water.
All I had to do was take 9 or 10 steps from my classroom to get to the drinking fountain and I had clean water. Before that day in school, I figured everyone lived like I did and so when I found this out, I decided I had to do something about it.
So I went home and begged my mom and dad to help. After a few days, they told me I could do extra chores to earn the $70 I thought would build me a well. I thought that would solve the problem. I worked for four months to earn my first $70. Then I learned that it was actually going to cost $2,000 to build a well in a place like Uganda. I also learned that the problem was way bigger than I realized.
I started speaking to service clubs, school classes, to anyone who would listen to my story so that I could raise money for my first well and then many, many more. I’ve been doing this for more than two thirds of my life and people from around the world have pitched in to help. So my Grade One project has become a Canadian charity and raised millions of dollars.
TerraGaia – In which city you lived in Canada at that time? What school do you studying? He had brothers? It was the older brother?
Ryan Hreljac – I grew up in Kemptville Ontario (located outside of Ottawa – the capital of Canada) and I attend university at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I am in the Foundation Year Programme.
I have three brothers – Jordan (older) and Keegan (younger). I also have an adopted brother, Jimmy, who was my pen pal in Uganda but came to Canada several years ago.
TerraGaia – How did your family react to your initiative? What do they think a child is involved in an ambitious project that the adults were not paying attention?
Ryan Hreljac – My parents and brother have been very supportive. When I came home from school in Grade One and asked my parents for $70, they said that I would have to earn it by doing chores! And I did.
TerraGaia – How do you juggled his studies with activities relating to the project?
Ryan Hreljac – I am a full time student and I continue to be involved with the foundation with speaking engagements (on some weekends and during the summer months) and as a Board member (4 meetings per year).
TerraGaia – What difficulties did you found to take the project forward? Get funding? Do not be taken seriously because he is a child? Find people or companies willing to contribute to their cause?
Ryan Hreljac – I’ve always been a motivated person and the fact that young age at first was not an obstacle in the way of my dream of obtaining clean water for everyone. I was inspired by the kindness of my family, friends and strangers who have sent money to the project.
TerraGaia – Why Uganda was the first country benefited from this project? What were the motives for choosing this country?
Ryan Hreljac – When we raise the necessary money, presented the project to an organization that has shown us Angolo, Uganda, as the region that needed a well at the time. I agreed and asked only that the well was built near a school.
TerraGaia – What was the reaction of the government of Uganda to know your project? Initially there was resistance or support?
Ryan Hreljac – The Ugandan government has been very supportive of the project.
TerraGaia – What region of Uganda was chosen for the construction of the first well? Why the region was chosen?
Ryan Hreljac – The first well was built at Angolo Primary School, located in Otwal in northern Uganda.The school was located in an area where I had a lot of suffering: 13 years of rebel activity, several years of drought and the scourge of AIDS. The closest water source was a swamp five kilometers away. Many of the children sick from dirty water Were.at any given time, nearly a quarter of the students had diarrhea.
TerraGaia – What was the reaction of local residents to learn that would be the first to have a well built for his initiative?
Ryan Hreljac – I visited the Angolo Primary School in July 2000 after construction of the well. It was a day of celebration. The road leading to the village where the school is located was taken by at least 5,000 children, who clapped and sang. A band formed by residents played several songs and was greeted by the village elders who showed me the well.
TerraGaia – At what point do you realize the need to establish the Ryan’s Well Foundation? When the institution was created?
Ryan Hreljac – Ryan’s Well became a Canadian registered charity in 2001. It was created because there was a need to raise money for water projects. In 2011, we will celebrate our 10th anniversary
TerraGaia – How many wells have been built to date? In what countries are they located?
Ryan Hreljac – In 2001, Ryan’s Well was registered as a Canadian charity. In this time, we have completed 630 water and sanitation projects in 16 countries, bringing safe water and sanitation services to 700,880 people.
Currently, the Ryan’s Well Foundation have supported water and sanitation projects in 16 Countries and we are currently focusing our efforts and resources in three primary regions: (1) East Africa – Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi (2) West Africa – Ghana,Togo, Burkina Faso (3) Central / South America – Haiti. Also Ryan’s Well has supported projects in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Guyana, Nigeria, India, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Lesotho.
TerraGaia – Do you have a project for Brazil? Know the Brazilian reality?
Ryan Hreljac – We do not have projects in Brazil. But we have a general understanding of the challenges in the country: high number of people living in urban slums and in rural areas without access to clean water and proper sanitation.
TerraGaia – Your initiative can be considered an example for a world where much money is used to manufacture weapons, which generate violence and pain to many families and children. How do you feel about the impact that their work generates for the welfare of thousands of people and families around the planet?
Ryan Hreljac – I am inspired by people I meet who say “I’m just a student,” “I’m just a teacher,” but they go out and in their own way make a difference. It sounds cheesy but I love hearing examples of people who have been inspired by my story and reading the spotlights on our website of people who are helping Ryan’s Well.
TerraGaia – What message would you like to send to families and children and youth of the world?
Ryan Hreljac – My work with the Foundation has taught me that in order to make a positive change in the world, you need to find something that you are passionate about and then you need to take steps to act. Although they may be very small steps, if you keep at it and never give up, your impact will grow year after year.
Ryan’s Well Foundation is a Canadian registered charity and we receive donations from individuals, schools, church groups and corporations. Contact:
The projects of the Ryan’s Well Foundation who need help are listed at: http://www.ryanswell.ca/projects/projects-needing-help.aspx.
Credit photos: Ryan’s Well Foundation – www.ryanswell.ca