A Canadian Boy Who Slakes Africa's Thirst

Ryan Hreljac and His Well Foundation

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ROME, OCT. 20, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Twelve-year-old Ryan Hreljac is one of the people who work hardest against Africa’s lack of water.

Last Thursday, that feat helped lead to his receiving Communion from the hands of John Paul II himself, at the 25th anniversary Mass of the Pope’s pontificate.

Ryan’s story began in 1997. One day the 6-year-old from Kemptville, Ontario, asked his parents, Mark and Susan, to give him $70 for poor people in Africa.

«They don’t have clean water to drink,» the little boy explained. «They drink bad water from swamps and streams and get sick and die. We heard about them in school today. My teacher said it would cost $70 to dig them a well. So can I have it?»

Ryan’s parents were proud of their son’s generosity, yet they could not picture people digging wells in Africa for a Canadian first-grader.

As usual, Ryan kneeled at his bed that night and prayed: «Please, God, bless Mom and Dad and my two brothers. And let there be clean water for everybody in Africa.»

Mark and Susan encouraged Ryan to earn the money by doing extra chores, in addition to setting the table, feeding the dog and making his own bed. For many weeks the boy washed the windows, swept the garage, helped the neighbors with their yard work, picked up branches after ice storms, collected pine cones for his grandmother to use in her craft projects.

Each night his prayers ended with the then familiar «And please help me get clean water for the poor people in Africa.»

Four months later, Susan and Ryan went to WaterCan’s office, an Ottawa-based organization that digs wells in Africa. Ryan presented his savings to the organization’s director, Nicole Bosley, who thanked him and told him that $70 only buys a hand pump. To drill a well actually cost $2,000.

Ryan was not fazed by this news. «That’s OK,» he said. «I’ll just do more chores.»

Ryan did more chores throughout the spring, the summer and the fall, earning only a few dollars a week. A friend of Susan, Brenda, published a story about Ryan’s project in the local paper, the Kemptville Advance.

Some funds trickled in from sympathetic readers. Later, the Ottawa Citizen ran a story about «Ryan’s Well.» Then a TV station did a feature on the now 7-year-old boy. Checks flooded until Ryan approached the $1,000 mark. Then the Canadian International Development Agency, which works with WaterCan, matched Ryan’s funds two to one.

Ryan and his mother were invited to a special WaterCan meeting, where Ryan and Gizaw Shibru, the Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief (CPAR) director for Uganda, picked the location for the well, Angolo Primary School.

Shibru explained the well would be dug by hand, because even a small drill costs $25,000. «Maybe I can start raising money for a drill so you can build more wells,» the little boy said.

Ryan immediately got back to fund raising. His younger brother Keegan helped out by licking and sealing envelopes while Jordan, his older brother, prepared the audiovisual equipment for Ryan’s presentations.

After his homework, Ryan went out to speak at various service clubs. The more he spoke, the more donations came in. Ryan’s second-grade class put a donation can in their room and started a pen-pal campaign with the Angolo Primary students. Ryan’s pen pal was Jimmy Akana, an 8-year-old orphan.

In January 1999, the Hreljacs received word that Ryan’s well was helping a great many thirsty villagers. Ryan prayed that night for something more: «God, please look after my friends Jimmy and Gizaw, and let me see my well some day.» Ryan’s parents explained to their son that they could start saving for a trip to Uganda but he might be 12 years old before they had saved enough.

On New Year’s Day 2000, Beverly and Bruce Paynter, the Hreljacs’ next-door neighbors, gave the Hreljacs all their frequent-flier miles, more than enough for three people to fly as far as London, England. With those miles and some generous support from others, Mark, Susan and Ryan flew to Africa in July.

With Gizaw Shibru they arrived at Angolo in a pickup truck, where hundreds of people along the road chanted, «Rayan! Rayan! Rayan!»

Scores of children in blue and white uniforms lined the road and clapped in unison as Ryan walked the last yards toward the well, which was adorned with flowers, and had this inscription at its base: Ryan’s Well, Funded by Ryan H.

At that moment, Ryan and Jimmy met for the first time. They grasped the well handle and pumped forth a cool stream. They cupped their hands to catch the water and drank the water both boys dreamt about for a long time.

After the trip, Canadian Olympic gold-medalist wrestler Daniel Igali wrote Ryan asking him to help build wells in Nigeria, Daniel’s birthplace, where he was building a school. Ryan and Igali spoke together in schools and appeared on the popular morning TV show «Canada AM.» Later, they went to Nigeria to see the fruits of their labor.

Ryan has participated in many Canadian and international conferences, such as the World Summit on Sustainable Development — the Johannesburg Summit that took place in August-September 2002, and the World Water Forum and the Children’s World Water Forum held in Japan in 2003, where, at the request of UNICEF, Ryan delivered presentations and sat on several panels, including the Asian Development Bank’s Water and Poverty Closing Plenary Session.

He has appeared twice on the «Oprah Winfrey Show» and a number of TV shows. His successful Ryan’s Well documentary has been featured at the Wine Valley Film Festival-Movies in California and at the first Boston International Film Festival.

In April 2001, the little boy founded the Ryan’s Well Foundation and to date, thanks to matching funds from groups like CPAR, Ryan’s been responsible for raising almost $1 million and building over 70 wells in Africa.

Yet, as his mother says, «Ryan doesn’t think he’s special at all. He says that not everyone is called to drill wells, but everyone is called to make some difference in the world around, by helping a sibling, for instance, in his homework.»

Getting others to help is «sort of like a dandelion,» says Ryan. «When the wind blows, the seeds go everywhere. I’m trying to let people know they need to help out, too.»

The Herljacs do not only help out scores of people they never meet. Once they found out that Jimmy Akana, Ryan’s old pen pal, was an orphan and escaped miraculously from becoming a child-soldier for the Lord’s Resistance Army, they worked against all odds to finally get the permission from the Canadian immigration service to adopt the Ugandan boy. Jimmy today enjoys a family of three brothers in Kemptville, Ontario.

Susan and Ryan recently spoke at the Municipal Square in Cremona, Italy, and at several schools in north Italy. They went to Rome and received Communion from the Pope on the silver anniversary of his pontificate. It was a grace they never dreamed about.

God’s grace and loving hearts can make dreams — and things bigger than dreams — real. «God puts us on earth, but he doesn’t make us perfect on purpose,» Ryan said once in a television interview. «If God made us perfect, we wouldn’t need to make the world a better place.»

For more information on Ryan’s Well Foundation see: (www.ryanswell.ca) or write: ryan@ryanswell.ca.

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