At 19, Seth Maxwell learned people around the world were drinking from swamps, mud puddles and earth dams. He also discovered waterborne diseases kill scores of children every year. When his pastor began preaching about missions to provide safe water globally, Maxwell and six of his friends founded the Thirst Project in 2008, for which they’ve raised more then $8 million to fund clean-water projects for more than a quarter of a million people. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper recently spoke with Maxwell along with friend and supporter Chyler Leigh about living on purpose.
Chet Cooper: How did you get started with the Thirst Project?
Seth Maxwell: I had a friend who was a photojournalist for National Geographic who was the first person to expose me to the global water crisis, and I learned that 1.1 billion people didn’t have access to safe, clean water. Today it’s about 663 million people around the world.
Cooper: How many years has that been?
Maxwell: That was eight years ago.
Cooper: So it’s gotten better, you’re saying?
Maxwell: Yes, measurably, for sure, but what it practically means is that in developing communities around the world, women or children literally walk for about three and a half miles from their homes to whatever standing water sources are available, so rivers, swamps, mud puddles. And then, as a result of drinking from these unsafe water sources, will contract easily preventable water-borne diseases, such as diarrhea or dysentery, which actually kill more kids under the age of five than AIDS, malaria, or all world violence combined, including war. We build fresh-water wells in developing nations and impoverished communities to give people clean water.
Cooper: How did you two get to know each other?
Maxwell: At church, actually.
Chyler Leigh: Yeah, many, many moons ago, like
Maxwell: Seven or eight years, yeah.
Cooper: Let’s count the moons. How many moons would that be?
Maxwell: About eight years.
Cooper: Eight times 365— [laughs]
Leigh: Oh, that’s a lot of math!
Maxwell: I don’t do math.
Leigh: I don’t do math, either. We just smile and look pretty. That’s about it.
Cooper: So you met at church—
Cooper: —and you both sing?
Maxwell: [laughs] No!
Leigh: [laughs] No! Well, you know—
Maxwell: [laughs] In the shower.
Leigh: Yeah, exactly.
Maxwell: In the car.
Leigh: [laughs] That was right at the infancy of the Thirst Project. That was when he really just came up with the idea of taking bottled water out into the streets and giving it away and talking to people about the water crisis, as well as what we can do to help and empower the youth.
Cooper: I noticed earlier you were drinking water. When you drink water, do you think of the work that’s being done around the world?
Leigh: Yes. [laughs] You know, I have kids, and we’re very, very strict about water use in the house and obviously turning faucets off, and the kids always get bothered by it. But we’ve been working together many years, and we’ve funded wells for the Thirst Project. One year, they actually put together a video from the community where they’d developed a well, and it was a big thank you to our family. And the kids saw it and were so affected by it, just the fact that whatever little thing we could do, we created a life-giving source out there. It hit home with them. So we remind them all the time about being good and responsible with our drinking water.
Cooper: I noticed you finished your water before you came out here. There was a little bit left in the cup.
Leigh: I chugged it! I wasn’t going to toss that away. That would be terrible. I would be a horrible person to be here with the Thirst Project and just toss water away. It would be awful.
Cooper: Over the edge.
Maxwell: Put it on a plant.
Cooper: Have you traveled at all with the project?
Leigh: I have not had the honor to do so, but Seth does.
Maxwell: Yeah. I’m leaving tomorrow at 9:30 for Swaziland in South Africa.
Cooper: Doesn’t that sound like an amusement park?
Leigh: In theory. I’m sure if you go to Swaziland it wouldn’t be quite as amusing.
Maxwell: It’s not like Disneyland.
Cooper: Have you been there before?
Maxwell: Yeah, this will be my 29th time to Swaziland.
Cooper: Wow! There are no direct flights? It probably takes a while to get there.
Maxwell: Yeah. It’s from LA to Atlanta, Atlanta to Johannesburg, and Johannesburg to Swaziland.
Cooper: And once you’re there, what do you actually do?
Maxwell: I will either take donors or volunteers to see the impact of their work or lead teams that’ll do builds or meet with people who want to contribute to building a water project. They’ll spend two or three days at a different site or at a single site, going in after the hole’s been drilled, and they’ll do everything from mixing cement to digging a trench, laying pipe and fixing the hand pump, so that when it’s done, they can see the impact of their work on the water projects.
Cooper: Nice! How long does it take to build a well, from start it to finish?
Maxwell: The actual construction process takes about four days, which is really fast. But the process from identifying a site to doing the hydrology and groundwater surveys, to determining where in the community we should build, to the four days of construction, to the pump test to assess the quality and yield and getting those results back, and then training the community on maintenance, repair, sanitation and hygiene, is a six- to nine-month process, depending on which community we’re working in.
Cooper: Do you have filters in place after the well is produced, or do you just take it straight from the well?
Maxwell: Almost always, which is why we do a pump test for water quality. We’ll assess for high levels of fluoride, or if there’s a trace element of arsenic. If there is, we’ll make sure we modify or provide a filter. But we’re digging 200 to 300 feet deep, tapping into existing and well-protected water tables and aquifers, so nine times out of 10 the communities just take it out of the ground.
Cooper: [turning to Chyler] You have a shovel in your garage?
Leigh: [laughs] I do. It would take me six to nine years to get to the middle down there.
Maxwell: Three hundred feet.
Cooper: So you have equipment in place that can drill?
Maxwell: Yeah, we drill. It’s not, like, by hand. The drilling process takes maybe a day and a half to drill the hole.
Cooper: And do the volunteers create a safe environment so things don’t fall into the well, including people?
Maxwell: The boreholes are probably a foot around. People aren’t at risk.
Cooper: A mole could fall into the hole.
Maxwell: We put casings down. The casings could be PVC or cement. They prevent it from collapsing into itself. Then we’ll cement around the casings and let that rest for a few days. At that point the volunteers come in. They’ll dig a foundation and mix the cement for the foundation, fix the hand pump, install the gravel pack and sanitary seals and all those kind of things. This is all done under our team’s direction.
Cooper: So it’s all hand-pumped? There’s no electricity needed?
Maxwell: For a number of reasons, we almost never do electric pumps. The communities we work with are extraordinarily rural. Sometimes it takes two, three or four hours from the nearest city to drive to these places. You’re on roads that are only roads because you’re driving on them.
Since there are no grids to tap into, electricity is not an option, or if you were to install a fuel-powered generator, the community can’t always maintain the cost of the fuel, so you’d spend all this money building this project, and then if the community can’t maintain the fuel costs, it would be rendered inoperable. There are reasons we don’t use solar power that often either. Again, not if but when you have to replace a solar panel, there’s not a local Ace Hardware where you can buy it.
Cooper: What about wind pumps? I don’t even know how they work. You know the ones you see all over farmlands?
Leigh: Wind power?
Cooper: What are those things actually doing?
Maxwell: They are doing power. I would say that’s used primarily in the developed world. You wouldn’t see that used as much in less developed countries.
Cooper: No, I mean the old wooden rickety thing. Is that pumping water to the fields? Is it keeping the well—?
Maxwell: I don’t know. I’d have to see the exact—
Cooper: Yeah, it’s an old windmill.
Maxwell: Oh, that’s what you’re talking about! I
Cooper: I was just thinking wind power.
Cooper: Did you learn anything listening to what Seth said?
Leigh: I always learn things from Seth. He’s like this beautiful angel—
Cooper: It just flows out of him.
Leigh: The water man. He’s just a wonderful human being who has worked incredibly hard and done an incredible job. Empowering youth is the most important part of what he’s been doing. He’s teaching kids to love—to find something they’re passionate about—and when they do, to go at it without abandon. How many projects have you done?
Maxwell: 1,832 projects.
Cooper: That’s incredible! Wow!
Leigh: And how many youths have been involved, would you say?
Maxwell: We’ve had in our history probably about 400,000 students do some kind of fundraiser, like a dance, a video game tournament, a walk or a cut-a-thon.
Cooper: Do the winners of the fundraiser get to go to any of the sites?
Maxwell: Yeah. Every year we take the top 10 students who raise the most money within our school programs to see projects and sites. And then there are other people who just want to come, so they’ll say, “I’m going to fundraise. I’m going to pay the cost to go to the field.”
Cooper: There are some people who have never gone and who just stay home. [Looking at Chyler]
Leigh: I’m one of them, unfortunately!
Maxwell: I think it’s even more impressive when someone doesn’t have to go to the field and says, “I see and recognize how important it is. I want to get involved without having to have that experience.”
Leigh: My husband and I both work with Seth, but it’s a little bit harder in our circumstance. We have three little kids, so with work and whatnot, for us to get out there and do that, it literally pulls at me. I want to go so badly, especially to see what we’ve done, to just be a part of it, to just be affected by it. It’s one thing to see it on TV, it’s another thing to see it in photos, but it’s a whole different experience when you’re there, and you’re seeing it and you’re living it in those moments. That’s something I’m very passionate about being able to do, but the work schedule has been very difficult.
Cooper: Habitat for Humanity—probably others do this, too—but they have programs where they charge, so instead of going on vacation, you go to a work site somewhere in the world. The whole family goes, and they use that as a common playcation. Have you thought about trying to do something like that?
Maxwell: We have people who will pay to go. We don’t make money off of it, but we have them cover the cost of their trip. It’s already pretty costly to fly. If you’re going from somewhere like LA or Atlanta to Swaziland, depending on when we book, we’ve seen ticket prices as low as $1,200 and up to $2,900 once. Usually the whole trip, including ground transportation, bed and breakfast, food and whatever else is needed to put people up, is about $4,000 per person for a two-week trip. It’s not cheap. Not everyone can necessarily afford to do it.
Cooper: Those people who are doing this with Habitat can afford it. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure.