Zero-Proof 21st Birthday

Think back to a day you may or may not remember so well: your 21st birthday. For most, it’s a day celebrated with a drink. About a month before my Sept. 8 birthday, I was already thinking about “drinking” on my birthday—but not in the way you might think.

For my 21st birthday I wanted to celebrate a little differently. Like everyone else, I considered drinking, but then I realized how many people will never get to drink the most basic liquid of all: clean water.

That’s why this year, for my 21st birthday, I didn’t want gifts. I didn’t want a drink. I didn’t even want a cake. I simply asked everyone I knew to donate $21 toward bringing clean, safe water to people in a world where 4,500 children still die every day from water-related illnesses and diseases.

Partnering with Charity:Water, a nonprofit organization that funds clean-water projects all over the world, Leslie Labruto asked for donations to the organization in lieu of gifts for her 21st birthday. In just a few weeks’ time, she had raised $5,647 through a personalized website.

In order to make my birthday campaign come to life, I partnered with a nonprofit organization called Charity:Water. Founded in 2006, Charity:Water has helped fund 2,906 clean-water projects in 17 countries, benefiting more than 1.2 million people. Overall, the organization has sent more than $10 million to developing countries as of February of this year. Through their organization I was able to set up a webpage for donors to give $21 (or whatever amount they could give) toward my birthday to bring clean water to 250 people in the Central African Republic for the next 20 years.

Water is a point of passion for me. Being a civil and environmental engineering student at Vanderbilt introduces you to a world of problem solving, balancing equilibrium, and making sure that there is always a definitive answer. However, for many of the world’s most pressing problems, answers are not so easy to find. Throughout the course of my college career, I have sought to find how people fit into the equations I solve every day. As a result I immersed myself, early on, in extracurricular activities when I was a first-year student, engaging in SPEAR (Students Promoting Environmental Awareness and Responsibility), Engineers without Borders, VUcept and Global Poverty Initiative, just to name a few.

As college progressed I was drawn to the realization that water was a much bigger issue than I had thought. Sure, I knew grabbing a water bottle every day wasn’t the greatest decision for the environment, but I didn’t really know what else I could do to help this global problem or how big the problem actually was.

I was determined to find out more.

After doing some research I stumbled upon some harsh statistics. Our world is facing a water crisis with immediate repercussions. Almost 900 million people do not have access to clean water. This problem is exacerbated by the 2.5 billion people living without proper sewage disposal, which contaminates water and spreads disease. Water-borne diseases cause half the world’s hospitalizations and kill 3.3 million people annually. As author and environmentalist Maude Barlow points out, “More children are killed by dirty water than by war, malaria, HIV/AIDS and traffic accidents combined.” It is projected that by 2025, water scarcity will affect two-thirds of the world’s population. These shocking numbers demonstrate the horrifying reality of the water crisis, and yet so many people continually turn on their taps every day not realizing what a precious commodity they are using.

Reading statistics brought my attention to the problem, but stopping there was not an option. I knew I needed to experience this problem to truly figure out my own way to make a difference. Two unexpected finds changed my life.

The first was in Argentina during the spring of my sophomore year, when I participated in a service trip for Manna Project International. A team of nine volunteers and I worked in a village plagued by poverty, lack of education and economic despair. There was a gleam of hope in this community, however, at Sylvia’s. Sylvia owned a small microfinance-backed school and bakery. We completed our mission of painting the school in seven hours rather than the nine days we had allotted for the task. While painting, I noticed a fundamental flaw within the schoolyard. In the middle of the play area, a large amount of standing water had accumulated from rainfall. Upon further inspection I found red parasites swarming in contaminated water with shards of broken glass.

Using my educational training as an engineer, I worked with a local carpenter to design an irrigation and trench system that would successfully drain water from the playground. It was a powerful moment when my broken Spanish and his drawings led us to a plan we knew could work. After six days of hard labor and community-wide involvement, we successful led an effort to build a sandbox that dually served to divert water away from the playground while also creating a fun place for children.

This direct application of my skills as a civil engineer had an immediate and lasting impact on the community of La Matanza. It was also my introduction to water as an agent of contamination that can hinder, rather than save, a person’s life.

The second event occurred this past winter in Peru. I helped organize an Engineers without Borders trip in January, raising more than $5,000 so our team of four engineering students could install a well in a community that had no clean drinking water.

Before I embarked for Peru with my team, one statistic resonated in my mind: “More than 1.1 billion people in the world do not have access to clean water.” Access to water is essential to the sustainability of the human race. I constantly reminded my team about this fact, which pushed us further than we ever could have imagined.

Vanderbilt engineering students (left to right) Bailie Borchers, Leslie Labruto, Jessica Canfora and John Barrere on an Engineers without Borders clean-water project in Llanchama, Peru.

When we arrived in Llanchama, a rural community outside the city of Iquitos, we discovered that this community of 160 human beings was surviving on water from two contaminated hand pumps installed many years ago and by drinking the polluted waters of the Amazon. Getting to work, we coordinated efforts with the locals to reactivate an electric well that had been drilled years earlier. On our last day, clean water that was found more than 19 meters beneath the earth’s surface flowed freely to the community. Our project enabled 160 people to have clean drinking water. It was a life-changing experience that was made possible through the local community’s support.

Entering my senior year at Vanderbilt, I knew I wanted to continue making my dent in the world’s water crisis. Encouraged by my best friends and fellow leaders of Global Poverty Initiative (GPI), I decided to give up my 21st birthday.

Giving up my birthday was an easy decision when I knew that no gift anyone could give me could compare to giving clean water to those who needed it. Having visited the office of Charity:Water in New York City, it was easy to be inspired by its founder, Scott Harrison, who gave up his own birthday to start the nonprofit in 2006.

I remember sitting around a table with my friends in GPI deciding what my fundraising goal should be. “I think I’m going to shoot for $2,000,” I declared, although my confidence was much greater than I led on.

“Make it $5,000,” said Dave, one of the GPI leaders.

With this definitive sentence, I felt empowered. And with the love and support of my friends and family, I opened my birthday campaign at and asked more than 1,450 friends, family, professors and strangers for a donation toward it.

After sending out the email asking for $21 rather than personal gifts or drinks, I stared at my computer. Fifteen minutes went by with no responses. My stomach started getting butterflies.

But then it happened: My inbox exploded with messages that people, including many I didn’t even know, were donating to my campaign. As the days continued, donations got bigger, the total grew higher, and voices grew louder as buzz about Leslie’s 21st birthday made it around campus. Left and right, people were patting me on the back and wishing me good luck on my goal. I’ll never forget the smiles on Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos’ and Provost Richard McCarty’s faces when they told me how proud they were to donate toward such a good cause. In the end, it was the people in my life who made the difference.

Sharing my vision was simple, and I was glad that I could help people become passionate about clean water. After being interviewed by The Chronicle of Higher Education and receiving media attention from the InsideVandy website, I quickly surpassed my goal of $5,000 in a mere 21 days. When my campaign ended, with 150 donations, we had raised $5,647, bringing clean water to 282 individuals around the world. Today my gratitude to everyone in my life who donated, who cared, and who opened their hearts to my vision is overwhelming.

With confidence I can easily say this was the best birthday ever.

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