Austin’s Water to Thrive changing lives one well at a time


More than 500,000 people in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania now have access to clean water.

Water to Thrive expects to fund its 1,000th well this year.

Each well represents a $5,000 donation and brings water to about 500 people for about 20 years.

More than 500,000 people in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania now have access to clean water, and it’s all because an Austin Sunday school class learned about a problem a decade ago and created nonprofit Water to Thrive to make a change.

In 2007, 40 members of the adult Sunday school class at Triumphant Love Lutheran Church spent eight weeks learning about world hunger and poverty. They heard speakers from various groups including A Glimmer of Hope, an Austin nonprofit that talked about the water crisis in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia and sub-Saharan Africa, about half of the population does not have regular access to clean water, they learned.

The class was inspired. Instead of batting around ideas, they got to work. “We used the old philosophy, ‘Go and do likewise,’” says class facilitator and Water to Thrive founding board member Ed Scharlau. “That was our motto from the beginning. We turned it into an action plan we can do.”

The class decided to raise money for wells through A Glimmer of Hope, which was started by Philip and Donna Berber in 200o and works with the Relief Society of Tigray in Ethiopia to build wells there as one of its many projects in Ethiopia and in Austin.

Several families pledged $1,000, and it started to grow from there. The class thought it could raise enough money for three or four wells, but it raised enough for six. Then the whole congregation heard about the project — within 90 days, Triumphant Love had the funds for 12 wells.

“Our congregation was led by the Spirit to this cause,” says class attendee and founder Dick Moeller. “We can help educate a lot of people about this and change a lot of lives.”

Now in its 10th year, Water to Thrive expects to fund its 1,000th well this year. Each well represents a $5,000 donation and brings water to about 500 people for about 20 years.

From idea to building wells

Moeller, 72, and Scharlau, 78, have been friends for more than 25 years. Scharlau made his career in management at 3M.

Moeller, who is an engineer by background, has an entrepreneurial heart. He acquired a point-of-sale system software he was developing while working at Texas Instruments and began developing it as his own company. He then sold that company. He headed VTEL and co-founded Verity Ventures and SSM Ventures, venture capital firms, before he led St. David’s Community Health Foundation. Today, he heads Enovate Enterprises consulting firm.

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Moeller didn’t know about working with African communities to build wells, but he knew about raising money and nonprofit organizations. By April 2008, he had completed the 501(c)(3) paperwork to create a nonprofit organization to fund more wells.

Because Water to Thrive didn’t have the on-the-ground knowledge of working with nongovernmental organizations in Ethiopia, it continued to work through A Glimmer of Hope to build wells for the first several years. Then it was able to build connections with organizations in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda.

“We are able to get a little faster turnaround,” Scharlau says about branching out from working with A Glimmer of Hope. Another organization doesn’t have to review everything every time Water to Thrive wants to build a well. Now Water to Thrive goes directly to organizations in Africa to find the next communities for wells. “When you take out one process in anything, you take out time and energy,” Scharlau says.

From the very beginning, Water to Thrive wanted to work with local organizations that would partner with the local communities. “We’re not just going to put Americans in a place (in Africa), because the local partners know the culture so much better,” Moeller says.

These nongovernmental organizations know the communities, and they know the land as well. They make the decisions about where the wells will go. They often have the equipment and expertise or work with local vendors to implement the wells. By using local organizations, Water to Thrive is investing in the economic development of the region by providing jobs.

Water to Thrive partners with the community getting the well. These communities own the well, and they help build it, including building the wall or gate around it. They are also responsible for maintaining and repairing it. The community is trained on sanitation and hygiene and learns how diseases spread, how to make sure the water is kept clean while transporting it, how to build latrines and why latrines are important.

Water to Thrive requires each community to form a water board, and at least 50 percent of the water board has to be female. The water board’s members are elected, and the board has bylaws and sets a use fee for the well that pays for repairs and possibly a guard to open and close the well, keep the area clean and keep it a safe place.

The power of the well

Moeller and Scharlau know it’s more than just a sip of clean water when they put a well in a community. “Disease-free clean water can do anything,” Scharlau says. “It opens up a whole new life. It’s social justice.”

Collecting water is considered women’s work, and often young girls walk miles to get to their drinking source and then lug home big jugs filled with water. Sometimes the water source is very dirty and filled with worms.

“Nothing has as much of an impact as clean water,” Moeller says. “It’s a gateway to economic change for their community.”

Without a well, girls are spending hours each day collecting water and are not able to go to school. Fathers also become reluctant to marry daughters to someone from a community without a well. “He doesn’t want her to have to walk to get water,” says Executive Director Susanne Wilson.

The well also affects how early a girl gets married. Wilson recalls the story of one family that had multiple children. The girls who were 13 or older before the well was put in were married by that age. The girls who were younger were able to go to college. Women who have to walk long distances to get water also risk being raped.

The women become in charge of the well, which means it’s giving some of them a job. Others are able to start their own businesses because they are not spending their time gathering water.

Water to Thrive has seen communities transformed. First there’s the well; then the community builds a school.

When Moeller and his daughter, Meredith, saw one of the first wells Water to Thrive built, he says, “It changed our life 100 percent. There’s no way of expressing the gratitude and the joy of people who have for the first time a well with clean water.”

Spreading that power

From those first 12 wells, Water to Thrive’s work has spread one conversation at a time. Scharlau has been traveling from church to church, school to school, civic group to civic group as an ambassador. Other ambassadors spread the message as well.

Sometimes it’s a school that raises money; sometimes it’s one kid. Sometimes a church community decides to invest in a well; other times, many wells come out of a Sunday morning program at a church.

“We present with the idea that we will help inform and educate,” Scharlau says. “We touch some of the emotions. We plant seeds.”

One of the key things Water to Thrive does to spread its mission is bring Americans to Africa to see the wells twice a year. It will return in June this year on a special 10th-anniversary fundraising mission, which includes climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Austin chef David Bull is one of the Water to Thrive patrons that will be on the climb.

Wilson is sure to let travelers know that this is not a luxurious trip. Ethiopia is about 1 1/2 times the size of Texas, and it’s very desolate. You might fly into the capital and then fly to another remote airport and spend days traveling in a truck on roads that many Americans wouldn’t consider roads. Then, when it’s too difficult to continue by truck, you get out and walk to see the well.

“You’ll be hungry, dirty and terribly tired,” Wilson tells prospective travelers. “You’re going to be tested, you’ll cry and laugh. I guarantee it will change you.”

Elanore Decker, who heard about Water to Thrive from her San Antonio church, went in 2016.

“Everyone came out to greet us,” she says. “They offered us food and refreshments. They were so proud and so thankful.” In Ethiopia, many communities are known especially for their coffee — there’s a whole ritual around greeting a stranger and offering coffee.

One of the ladies showed Decker the water they used to gather before the well and how they would use a cloth to try to drain the worms out of it. “You are giving a minimal amount of money and you’re supporting 400 to 600 people for 20 years or more,” she says. “They can have fresh water. The children can go to school. The kids won’t be dying from various waterborne diseases. That’s the ultimate in giving.”

As they visited each of the 25 wells they saw on their trip, again and again they were thanked by the women and the elders and told that they must continue the good work. “They have neighbors who do not have clean water, and they want their neighbors to have the same blessing,” Decker says.

After the trip, she and her husband sponsored two wells. They plan to travel with the organization again in June as well as donate another well in honor of the organization’s 10th year.

Austinites Homer and Mary Goering went on a trip in 2015, having no idea they would get to see the well they had funded. After traveling for hours and hours on roads they call tracks, they were told they would participate in the inauguration of the well. The villagers were singing and clapping. “We cut the ribbon. I think it was a piece of toilet paper,” Mary Goering said. “We pumped the well, and they were singing. It was the most emotional experience Homer and I have ever had.”

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When they came back, the Goerings became ambassadors. “We just tell our story. We never ask for money,” she says. “God’s holy spirit will move people if they want to contribute.”

She says people she never thought would fund a well do, including a group who exercises at a Curves in Northwest Austin and a person she met at an art show in Port Aransas. Now 21 wells have been funded that they have inspired, including 12 by a Rotary Foundation grant.

Creating the model to continue the mission

Three years ago, it became clear that Moeller, who had been at the helm, as well as Scharlau as his right-hand man, needed to take a step back for the organization to grow. That meant hiring an executive director. Wilson had been working at a college in Kentucky but had experience working on water projects in Central America with the Rotary Club.

Water to Thrive needed a strategic plan to determine what its mission is and what role the board and staff should play. “We hope to stay grassroots and responsive. Donors really like that,” Wilson says. Each donor that gives $5,000 for a well gets to determine what’s on the plaque by the well. They also get the GPS coordinates for their well, so if ever in Ethiopia, Tanzania or Uganda, they could go visit.

Water to Thrive has a different donation model. Everything given for a well goes to that well. Administrative costs are run through a different fund. Water angels — people who give $1,000 a year or more to the administrative fund and through special events — have helped build that up, as well as events like Chef’s Table in September, at which attendees get to bid on intimate dinners created by well-known Austin chefs.

Moeller explains that sometimes it’s easy to get money for a well, but water angels, like the ambassadors, are able to do more with their gift. For every $1 a water angel gives to the administrative fund, $6 can be raised for a well, he says.

In its first 10 years, Water to Thrive has had wells funded from 25 states.

“It really touched me that it was a Bible study group who just wanted to make a difference and look where they are,” Decker says. “It’s just a few people in Austin, Texas, and a little bit beyond making a difference.”

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