Scott Harrison's nonprofit, charity: water, has brought clean water to more than 8.5 million people in the developing world and been name-checked by everyone from Barack Obama to Bill Gates. It's not an outcome anyone would have predicted a dozen years ago when Harrison and his then-partner in dissipation, Brantly Martin, were fast-living night club promoters in New York City. In this edited excerpt from Harrison's new book Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World (2018, Currency, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC), he recounts his pivot from parties to purpose.
In late April 2006, I came home to New York completely broke, only to discover that it was worse than that. I was also badly in debt. Brantly and I met at his new place in SoHo one night to catch up. After talking about the new clubs he was working at, he let slip that he'd never dissolved our nightlife business.
"You didn't disband the company?" I said incredulously. "Nope," he said.
"Did we ever pay taxes?"
"Nah, I don't think so." He pointed to a box on the floor filled with letters from the IRS. Brantly never opened the mail, because he felt like it was always bad news. "It's probably all in there if you want to sort through it."
Tearing through the stack of unopened notices, I discovered that we'd never filed returns, made estimated payments, or kept current with tax payments for Brantly&Scott Inc. Now we were both on the hook for about forty grand in back taxes, late fees, and penalties.
I was furious. Brantly didn't seem to be interested in coming up with the money for the IRS. In fact, he seemed indifferent to most things in his life at that point.
"Sorry about that," he said with a shrug. "You can live here for free if you want, while you're figuring it all out."
I was planning to start a world-changing charity. How was I supposed to do that in a two-bedroom SoHo loft with bill collectors at the door and Brantly's friends coming by to snort drugs off the coffee table? How could I ask people to give me money for a cause when I owed $40,000 in back taxes?
I took him up on his offer. After all, a free place in New York City was worth something, and I had nowhere else to live. At first, I slept in a small bed on a raised loft at the back of the apartment. Later, when Brantly needed that space, I took my pillows and a few blankets to the walk-in closet and slept on the floor beneath a rack of shirts and sweaters.
In July 2006, I opened a bank account and deposited $1,100--all I had in the world--for my new charity. I also hired a personal accountant to dissolve Brantly&Scott Inc., file our tax returns, and set up a payment plan with the IRS. Now I just had to figure out what this new charity would actually do.
During all those hours I'd spent on Thinkers Beach in Liberia, I'd given a lot of consideration to the act of charity. The word charity is derived from the Latin caritas, which means love. I once heard it defined as "helping your neighbor in need and not getting anything in return." That sounded so beautiful and simple to me. Regardless of one's religion or politics, regardless of race or geography, we all could use a little more caritas. More action motivated by love, with no strings attached.
I had met Dr. Gary Parker, a surgeon, when I volunteered as a photojournalist for the charity Mercy Ships. Gary had become a mentor and we had kept in touch over email. I shared my next steps with him:
I'm starting my own charity . . . I opened a bank account . . . I'm going to Uganda at the end of July to visit refugee camps . . . Should I focus on access to surgeries, malaria nets, health clinics, education, justice, shelter, water?
I think he could tell that my head was spinning with ideas. I wanted to do it all. But Dr. Gary provided a much-needed voice of reason.
"Scott, rather than five or ten different issues, perhaps God wants you to focus on one intensely," he counseled. "Pick that one issue carefully."
Focus on one intensely. What if I did just that? Picked one issue to start with? And once I got a handle on it, added new things to tackle from there?
And I wondered, What if I chose water?
I thought of what water had meant to me growing up--or rather, how little it had meant. It was just always there whenever I needed it: coming out of taps and showerheads, clean and never-ending. But the more I learned, the more I realized that those doctors weren't exaggerating when they said that dirty water and lack of sanitation caused half of all illnesses in the developing world. The real number was 52 percent. For years, dirty water was the number one cause of disease and death worldwide. It killed more people than all the wars, terrorism, and violence in the world combined.
But unlike cancer, malaria, and other problems that have sent thousands of smart people searching frantically for a cure--dirty water already has a cure. It's a completely solvable problem. Very often, clean water is already there, even in the poorest of villages, flowing like liquid gold in aquifers just beneath people's feet.
"We know that the single most powerful thing we can do for the whole human race is to get everyone safe drinking water," Dr. Gary had said once in a speech. "That will affect more lives than anything else."
I loved that he'd said "will." Not "would," not "could," but "will."
I had no seed money or personal savings to draw on, but I was willing to work day and night and do whatever it would take to get this thing off the ground. I wanted to start helping as many people as possible, as quickly as I could.
But first, I was going to need some help myself.
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