Sammamish girl quenches the thirst of needy Africans
March 12, 2014
By Neil Pierson
When Giuliana Sercu traveled to Ethiopia for the first time three years ago, she saw things that were heartbreaking.
But when Sercu, a Sammamish resident and 15-year-old sophomore at Eastside Catholic School, returned to the African nation last month, she saw things that were heartwarming.
Sercu is a volunteer for Water 1st, a Seattle-based organization that raises money for clean-water projects around the world. The group has been around for about nine years, said Kirk Anderson, its director of international projects, and now assists with tasks in India, Bangladesh, Honduras and Ethiopia.
In mid-February, during her school’s mid-winter break, Sercu flew with others to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. From there, the group drove two hours into the middle of the countryside, where there’s no running water or electricity, Sercu explained.
“The people out there are always way happier than the people in the city, which I’m always pleasantly surprised by,” Sercu said. “Even though they have literally nothing, they’re still some of the happiest people on the planet, which is really cool to see and really cool to spend time with them.”
A major difference between Water 1st and other humanitarian groups, Anderson said, is that his group seeks to make personal connections between donors and beneficiaries. To accomplish that, donors aren’t building the new water systems themselves, but are invited to travel to the locations where their money is making a difference.
Sercu earned the trip based on her extraordinary fundraising efforts – she brought in more than $10,000 during the annual Walk for Water event last May. That’s enough to provide clean water to more than 130 children for life. The event, sponsored by Water 1st, has participants carry heavy buckets of water on a 5-kilometer walk.
“Issues become real to people when they’re actually able to meet folks who are doing this every day, and literally walk a mile in their shoes,” Anderson said.
When she traveled to rural Ethiopia in 2011, Sercu walked to and from a clean-water site with locals. On the return trip, however, she was able to see the fruits of her labors – the same village had installed a potable water system, and she put a plaque bearing her name on it.
“Before Water First comes in and puts in these projects, the girls can’t go to school because they’re the ones that have to carry water for their family,” Sercu explained. “I mean, I go to school every day and that’s not really an option. I just take that for granted.”
Emily Cole, another Water 1st donor who was Sercu’s former soccer coach with Eastside FC, also made the trip last month. Together, Cole and Sercu brought 100 deflated soccer balls and pumps, which they filled and donated to Ethiopian students.
“I think that there’s something really beautiful about sports and soccer specifically, in that you connect with people beyond culture and language,” Cole said. “Soccer is kind of its own universal language. It was nice to connect with people through this game we both love.”
Sercu has done other community-service work with the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank and Tent City IV. She and her mom, Susan, work with the National Charity League on various projects.
But the work Sercu has done for Water 1st seems to have struck a special chord.
Maybe it’s because Americans are used to having clean drinking water as a basic amenity, she explained.
“It seems like such an easy problem to solve, when really it’s such a big one,” she said. “Really, with not so very much money, it can be solved so quickly. And so it’s really cool to see that quick change and how much that changes people’s lives.”
For Water 1st, Anderson said, having the people actually build the water systems themselves is valuable. There are cultural barriers in working abroad, he noted, although some Ethiopians are able to translate English during their trips.
Sercu’s camera has been her best communication tool, Anderson said, allowing her to take pictures and share them.
“The organization is brilliantly run in that it required a level of participation and accountability from the people that are benefiting from the projects,” Cole noted. “Because of that, the projects have longevity and really deep roots and … they’re owning their own future because of that.”