Loyola alumnus “digs deep” for clean water

Posted on: July 10th, 2012
Loyola alumnus George McGraw had his “aha moment” while standing around a well rig in South Sudan.

As the co-founder and director of DigDeep, a nonprofit organization that works to protect and promote the human right to water, 25-year-old McGraw was on a field visit to start up a community well in 2011. He was the only white man, surrounded by a group of South Sudanese people, many of whom had grown up in refugee camps, all of whom were holding shovels and wearing yellow bracelets.
Photo courtesy of George McGraw/Liz Levacy, DigDeep Water

At first glance, McGraw thought the popular Lance Armstrong LiveStrong bracelets had found their way to the East African country, but he soon realized that the soft yellow rubber was imprinted with the words “my voice, my vote.”
The digging of the well came days before the Republic of South Sudan’s July 9 independence from Sudan, and McGraw could already sense that its people were moving forward.

“I was digging a hole to lift them out of poverty right after they voted for their independence,” McGraw said. “Every time I work with these people it’s a testament to their resilience. It’s a beautiful thing when you go there and you’re not on your own. They’re doing it, and you’re just there to help.”

The former political science major and philosophy minor started DigDeep in 2011, only two years after he graduated from Loyola. After leaving Chicago, he spent a year studying international law and conflict management at the University for Peace in Costa Rica, a United Nations-mandated university that works to promote peaceful coexistence.

McGraw then worked as a consultant for the United Nations (UN) Development Programme, an organization that focuses on education and works with countries to help people build better lives. While there, he edited the 2011 Human Development Report for Afghanistan and worked on water access projects. McGraw said he was alarmed to discover that a large percentage of the UN’s water projects in Afghanistan were unusable within a mere two to five years of completion.

With a “Jesuit sense of social justice,” a desire to fulfill his “God-given vocation” and his realization that there was no internationally recognized human right to water, McGraw then set off on a path to bring clean water to some of the nearly 1 billion people around the world who go without it.

While many fresh-out-of-college job-seekers would jump at the first employment offer, McGrath didn’t rush into the first paid opportunity thrown his way. In fact, because DigDeep only started this past April, McGrath didn’t even receive a paycheck for the countless hours he put into the nonprofit organization until November. Even with a “modest” amount coming into his bank account now, it’s not about the money for McGrath.
“Loyola always tells you to find your vocation,” he said. “There’s always one thing in your life that you’re called to do. Whether you believe you’re called by God or predestined by the universe, I don’t care. But for me, I believe I was called by God [to do this work].”

McGraw and Hollywood film producer Jason Jones (a human rights activist and co-producer of Bella, winner of the prestigious “People’s Choice Award” at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival) co-founded DigDeep after meeting at a party and discovering a shared passion for protecting the human right to water.

Jones had an existing nonprofit in Los Angeles (Human Rights Education and Relief Organization, known as H.E.R.O.) that took DigDeep under its wing, which made it eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. This buddying-up system is common when starting up a nonprofit, McGraw said.

Even with a clear goal in mind and support from Jones, the beginnings of DigDeep weren’t all rainbows and freshwater streams.
With the promise of a nearly $60,000 grant from an anonymous donor, McGraw moved to Los Angeles to start up the nonprofit. Only after he moved west did he learn the grant had fallen through.

“That was a huge blow,” he said, “but all the disappointments are interspersed with realizations that whatever difficulties I face, the difficulties someone faces without water is one thousand times greater.”

As of now, DigDeep has three full-time employees (including McGraw) and roughly 10-20 global volunteers, based in locations such as England and Ireland, who help design awareness projects and enhance the organization’s social media presence.
Because work in South Sudan, DigDeep’s current focus, is hard during the rainy season, its projects will start up again in spring.

In the meantime, the organization is continuing to fundraise and fulfill its initial goal of financing and overseeing 50 well-creation projects. The nonprofit is making good progress, McGraw said, with nearly 70 projects completed in South Sudan and Darfur that he and his coworkers have helped fund (starting from even before DigDeep was officially formed).
He remains reluctant, however, to spit out facts and figures.
“There’s a tendency to focus on the organization’s numbers, when it really isn’t about how many [wells] you have,” he said. “It’s about how well you’re doing them.”

While many projects are in South Sudan, there are plans to expand the organization’s global reach as the nonprofit grows. Funding is almost finalized for more projects in the western Sudan region of Darfur, DigDeep just finished a field mission to Uganda and is planning a visit to the Kurdistan region in Iraq this January.

Once a location is chosen, McGraw said the process is three-tiered. First there’s a pre-visit evaluation to make sure the well will exist where it’s most needed and that the local population is ready to accept the project. The community’s acceptance and pride in the project is important because its members will need to help supply materials and assist with labor to get the well up and running.

The second step is to conduct in-depth sanitation and hygiene training with the community, which often is made up of around 200 to 250 people.

“We’re teaching them the basics: latrine use, handwashing and how to maintain a safe and clean community so that when the rain comes or when anything happens, the well site isn’t contaminated,” McGraw said.

McGraw said that contaminated drinking water accounts for nearly 80 percent of all diseases, which means that hygiene education is a vital step. Providing clean water alone, he said, reduces the instance of diseases caused by dirty water by 21 percent, but also educating the community on proper hygiene can reduce disease by 65 percent overnight.

The third step in DigDeep’s process is to establish a democratic water council, which is responsible for the upkeep of the well. These council members also serve as contact points for DigDeep should any problems arise. McGraw said the group is always partly made up of women and minorities to give those groups a voice in the community.

The organization has made it a priority to try to dig an area’s first well around a school, so that kids can get an education instead of spending their days retrieving water for their families. McGraw said the kids also have a special eagerness to share what they’ve learned about hygiene and clean water with their families. These lessons are often taught to young children by DigDeep members through song and dance.

On a recent visit to a school in South Sudan, McGraw said he asked the kids how many of them have had parasite worms (a consequence of drinking contaminated water). All of them raised their hands. When he asked who thought it was normal to have parasite worms, all of them again raised their hands. They were amazed to learn that it’s not normal and that McGraw himself has never had a worm.

“We blew their minds,” McGraw said. “These little pockets of information are so revolutionary that they take this information home to their parents and say, ‘Do you know that it’s not normal to have worms?’”

Despite the fact that South Sudan has been marred by civil war and constant conflict, McGraw remains in awe of the demeanor of the Republic’s people, which he describes as peaceful, resilient and joyful.

“The communities will give you the last bean, the last piece of bread, whatever they have,” McGraw said. “You’re not just there to serve them. They’re there with the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen wanting to make your life a little better. It’s just incredible.”
While his task may appear daunting, he’s driven by the memory of the first time he saw someone without access to water, a sight he claims is enough to motivate him forever.

There are one billion people around the world who need water, according to DigDeep’s website, and these are the people he gets up for each day.

“We wanted to build an organization that isn’t just out there to dig the most wells possible. It’s out there to use sustainable low-technology solutions that protect human dignity first and foremost. It’s not about wells. It’s about people.”
by Anna Heling

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