James Leitner On Clean Water And Changing The World
"It was not until I saw clean water flow from the taps, and not until I saw the community managing the system on their own, that I felt overwhelmed with emotion and teary-eyed with happiness. Not only will your work benefit your current target community, but it will have an everlasting impact on their future and future beneficiaries. You created that, and you should be proud of yourself." - James Leitner, Founder of MissionCleanWater
James Leitner, Founder of MissionCleanWater
When James Leitner learned that over 1 billion people do not have access to clean water, he knew he knew he had to take action. In response, James founded MissionCleanWater at just 24 years old to address a dire need for sustainable, community-driven clean water initiatives in rural Uganda.
An entrepreneur and endurance athlete, James kick-started his fundraising for MissionCleanWater with a symbolic challenge. To raise money and awareness, James walked the entire continental US, over 3,250 miles from New Jersey to California, while pulling 10 gallons of water to symbolize how far women and girls walk each year fetching water for their families.
Since 2018, James has funded and implemented clean water systems that have helped 3,000 people and 1,500 students gain access to drinking water, cutting their average walk to find water from 3 hours to 15 minutes. With every project, MissionCleanWater focuses on sustainability, working closely with each community to develop solutions together through relationship building, training, and long term investment.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, James has been working closely with Ugandan Government health officials to develop a hygiene response plan that provides handwashing stations and COVID prevention literature to MCW’s partner communities. Recognizing that access to clean water is more important now than ever, James is currently preparing for his next endurance fundraiser: 30 Days for Clean Water. During the month of July 2020, he will run 30 miles per day for 30 days to raise $30,000 for a clean water and hygiene solution for the St. Elizabeth’s All-Girls School in rural Uganda.
What is MissionCleanWater?
MissionCleanWater is a social impact organization working to bring clean water and sanitation to underserved communities. People without access to water are walking for hours every day, often for many miles, to find water for their family that might not be clean. This is likely to make someone in their family sick and a whole day is missed while walking to collect dirty water. Our focus is to work closely with each community, at the grassroots level, to develop a plan together that creates the best solution for them.
Now, clean water is not a new topic and people have been working towards helping those without clean water for many years. But, unfortunately, many clean water projects fail within their first year. In fact, according to UNICEF, 30-50% of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) projects fail after just two to five years. This can often leave communities worse off than before. By working closely with every community, we can ensure each project is developed with long term sustainability in mind.
How did you come to be so passionate about clean water?
The passion came to me in an experimental history class my junior year of high school (09-10). Our junior history class was the first time they were teaching “Global Perspectives” instead of just US or European history. We had a paper as part of our final for that class and the question to answer was “Why is this a global issue: Food, Water, and Energy. Pick One.” At the time, I knew a decent amount about food and energy so I decided to pick water as my topic. I started my research and learned that at the time, one billion people did not have access to clean drinking water. I was blown away by that fact because I never thought of water as an issue before. It is so easily available in New Jersey, why is there not clean water available everywhere? It felt like my entire world view changed, I had tunnel vision on this one issue and nothing could break my concentration on this topic. It was all I thought about. I wanted to become involved with water-based nonprofits, I started hosting fundraisers, I narrowed down my potential college options based on their research on global water issues. It felt like I couldn’t stop this pursuit until I knew everyone had clean water.
You started MissionCleanWater at just 24-years-old. Can you tell us about that process?
There are many steps to developing a new organization and here are the major ones I took to get to where I currently am. The first step I took was accepting the fact that I am not an expert in everything. Developing a new organization involves business planning, marketing, project development, etc. This all might seem overwhelming, but don’t forget you are developing your passion, and people love seeing that. Once I accepted that I am not a pro in everything, I began meeting with different people, companies, nonprofits, professional committees to learn as much as I could and see if other people were willing to be a part of my team and help me develop MissionCleanWater.
With a team assembled of other passionate individuals, we were able to begin developing our mission and building our organization. Together, as a team, we set goals, established standards of accountability, and took the steps necessary to begin helping.
The next major step I took happened about a year after we became a nonprofit organization. I took a break. When developing your passion, it's easy to forget to think about your mental health. You become so involved in developing your passion that you don’t even realize you are working 100+ hours a week and sleeping less than 4 hours a day. I isolated myself from the people I cared about, my friends and family in pursuit of my passion. I spent a few days rekindling those relationships and reevaluating my mental health. Ultimately, taking some time off helped me think more clearly and allowed me to become a better leader for MissionCleanWater.
What would you tell others who want to follow a similar path to yours?
The journey seems challenging, but every accomplishment will be so rewarding. Go for it and never be afraid to explore the impact you want to make. Talk to current professionals in that field and see how you can learn or volunteer your time to become a positive impact leader. Ask every question you have and challenge anything that seems scary to you. I want to see you succeed and will help you any way I can. Reach out to me, I will give you my cell phone number, and we will start helping you become a social impact leader. Always find new ways to move forward because I want to see you succeed, your friends want to see you succeed, and your parents want to see you succeed. Let's do this together.
The journey is going to be similar to becoming an artist or a professional athlete. You are going to constantly practice what you know and always be learning new material along the journey. Many mentors will guide you through your current level of knowledge and pass you on once you become a leader. You will make mistakes that might ruin a canvas or cause you to lose the game, but it is a learning experience. You figure out what went wrong and find a way to move past it. Always find new ways to move forward.
Tell us about the beneficiaries of your work. Is there a particular story you'd like to share about a community you've worked with?
Currently, 4,500 people have access to clean water from our completed projects. To really see these projects be built to last multiple generations, we spend weeks with the community, discussing plans and developing procedures to ensure the entire community can have universal access to clean water. During this time, we have had the opportunity to get to know a lot of community members. One of the people we got to know well during one of our recent trips is Benna.
Benna is a 10-year-old girl from the Agirigiroi community in Uganda. Before we met the Agirigiroi community, her entire life was focused on water. She was in charge of getting water for her family and every day she walked miles to and from the nearest water source. Her journey to collect water took so long that she had to drop out of school just to find water.
When we first visited Agirigiroi, we had the chance to walk with her to find water. She collects water from a 8 ft deep hand dug well that she has to climb into while holding on to the roots of nearby trees. If she slips, she cannot swim and the bottom of the well is very silty, meaning she would get stuck in the mud and be unable to get out.
After seeing her journey, we worked with her community to develop a solution and the impact has been incredible to see. Benna’s walk to collect water decreased from 3 hours to 15 minutes, giving her time to quickly get water in the morning and then head to school. The water she collects is no longer full of waterborne disease, which used to make her and her family sick. Now, it is clean and fresh. Her family has the ability to use the clean water for agricultural purposes, giving her family a new source of income and paying Benna’s school fees. Her life is no longer focused on collecting water. Now, she focuses on doing well in school and living a happy and healthy life - just like all 10 year old girls should.
You've come up with some pretty creative ways of raising funds for MissionCleanWater. Can you tell us about that?
My first major fundraiser for MissionCleanWater was a cross country walk. In 2017, I walked the entire continental US, over 3,250 miles from New Jersey to California, while pulling 10 gallons of water to symbolize how far women and girls walk each year fetching water for their families.
Since then, I've continued using endurance events and ultramarathons as a way of completing symbolic fundraisers for MissionCleanWater. For another fundraiser, I ran a marathon a month for 12 straight months, all while carrying 45 lbs of water over my head. In the fall of 2019, I decided to go all out and run 100 miles in 24 hours. I did it all at a local park that had a .8 mile loop meaning I had to do 132 laps. I also set the goal of starting at midnight and carrying 45lbs of water for 15 of those laps representing the 1,500 people that would have access to clean water because of this fundraiser.
How has the current global pandemic impacted your work?
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we began working closely with Ugandan Government health officials to develop a hygiene response plan that provided handwashing stations and COVID prevention literature to MCW's partner communities. Recognizing that access to clean water is more important now than ever, we are now preparing for our next endurance fundraiser: 30 Days for Clean Water. During the month of July, I will run 30 miles per day for 30 days to raise $30,000 for a clean water and COVID-19 hygiene solution for the St. Elizabeth’s All-Girls School in rural Uganda.
What's next for you?
Our upcoming fundraiser, 30 Days for Clean Water, may be my most ambitious fundraiser yet. I will be running 30 miles per day for 30 days in July to raise $30,000 to fund a clean water system for the St Elizabeth’s All Girls School in rural Uganda.
You can join me in my journey at missioncleanwater.org/30miles. Supporters can sign up for a Virtual Run from anywhere in the world. How you do it is up to you! Join at any point during the month of July 2020, register for any distance, run as an individual or a team. Not a runner? Don’t worry, you can donate directly to the cause at https://secure.givelively.org/donate/missioncleanwater/30-days-for-clean-water