Working-class hero

by Ogi Overman

With Wine to Water, Triad resident Doc Hendley brings the gift of potable water to the millions who are denied this precious resource. He also garnered the attention of CNN — he was nominated for one of the network’s Hero Awards this year. (courtesy photos)

Jamestown native taking on world water crisis, one well at a time


Theremust be times when Doc Hendley feels he is living in a world alone. Hemust lie awake at night wondering if he is the only one who grasps theseverity of the problem facing the world around him, if hisself-mandated mission to help remedy it is too daunting, if indeedthere is any hope at all.

Butthen he wakes up and does what people who are on a mission, who have avision, who are passionate about their calling do: He goes to work.

Exceptthat in Hendley’s case, work is as far away from the 9-to-5 world as isimaginable — literally. The places his work takes him are the mostunimaginably poverty-stricken, war-torn, Godforsaken outposts on theplanet. So far his work has taken him to seven countries: Ethiopia,Uganda, Cambodia, India, Kenya, Peru and the most pathetic of the lot,Sudan, with many more ravaged lands on the horizon.

WhatHendley does, at the risk of oversimplification, is dig wells and buildwater-purification systems for remote villagers who have no access toclean water and no means to better their situation. He, perhaps morethan almost any person on the planet, has observed firsthand theeffects that stifling poverty and unsanitary living conditions have onpeople. While he carries around in his head an arsenal of statisticsthat bolster his contention that the next world war will be fought overwater, not oil, a far more powerful argument is his description of whatit’s like to hold a malnourished and disease-ridden child as she takesher final breath, the nauseating stench of the dead and dying, thewide-eyed wonderment and undying gratitude of a villager when he takeshis first sip of pure, clean, disease-free well water.

Hendley is flanked by some of the Ugandan workers he recruited.Notice that several of them are carrying weapons, as violence is a wayof life in the war-torn country.

A well that Hendley drilled in Ethiopia is producing perhaps the first pure, potable water the villagers have ever seen.

Hendley said that it is not uncommon for African women to walk four miles each way to bring their families water.


Betweenhis junior and senior year as a communications major at NC StateUniversity, the Jamestown native and Ragsdale High School grad took asabbatical to travel the world. It was during that span when he becameaware that a dire water crisis existed and was only going to get worse.Even today, fully six years after his epiphany, Hendley is stillmystified how it all came about and how he got to this point.

“Ibegan taking notice of this water crisis and don’t even know why,” saidthe 30 year old, “because nobody around me knew anything about it. I’dhear things like 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean water. Istarted researching it a little and found that more people die from[lack of potable] water than anything else, that malaria kills morepeople than bullets and that water kills more children than malaria,HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis combined. Not only did I not know that but Ididn’t know anybody who knew that.”

Hiscuriosity and then his passions aroused, Hendley took it a stepfurther, organizing an event designed to raise both awareness andfunds. He dubbed it “Wine To Water,” a double entendre reversing theorder of Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine for the marriageceremony at Cana.

“My only skill set was as a bartender,” he said.

“Thereis nothing exceptional about me except that I knew how to createrelationships with customers. So I had an event in a bar, with a DJ,mainly among people I knew in the service industry around Raleigh. Butthe response was overwhelming; we had maybe 150 people and raised over$6,000.”

Hendleyknew he was onto something but still didn’t know exactly what it was,so he took the money to a large non-profit, Samaritan’s Purse, headedby Rev. Billy Graham’s son Rev. Franklin Graham, that has a longhistory of supporting humanitarian and charitable causes on a globalscale. But rather than taking the money, they told him to keep it andinstead offered him a job.

“Itold them to send me to the worst place where I could be of most use,”said Hendley, “which at the time I thought would be Afghanistan. Butsomething happened and they said they didn’t have anyone on the groundyet in Darfur, Sudan, and asked if I’d be willing to go. So six monthsafter I’d had my first event in January 2004, here I found myself inDarfur.”

Hendleywound up spending a full year in what is arguably the most hopelessregion on earth. To say it was a life-altering experience would be agross understatement.

“Duringthe year I was there, the Janjaweed militia, which are the Sudanesedeath squads, killed over 120,000 people,” he said somberly. “Not onlydo they mow down black African Muslims indiscriminately but they putthe dead bodies into the wells, polluting theground water and taking this most desperate resource that they needmore than anything else. That was the first time I saw water used as aweapon, and it changed my view completely. Seeing those horrible thingsthat could be done with water fueled my passion even more andsolidified my involvement.”

AfterHendley returned home he realized that any chance for a so-callednormal life was gone, that life as he’d known it would never return.

“I’dseen so much that I knew I could never go back to a regular desk jobagain,” he commented. “I tried but I realized I had no business livinga normal life. My business had become telling the world about thethings I’d seen and trying to figure out a way to help do somethingabout it.”

Duringthe next two years he decided to break away from Samaritan’s Purse andmake Wine Into Water his life’s work. He gained 501(c)(3) status; metand married his wife Amber, who teaches special needs children at acommunity college in Boone; continued to raise funds through grants andprivate donors, wine-tasting events (often featuring him on guitar andvocals); and began developing ways to build cheaper and more efficientwells and water-filtration systems. But he also had another realizationthat his mission had taken on a new dimension, that it was now two-fold.

“Myjob is not just to try to fix the problem hands-on, but to make surethat people know that this is a problem,” he noted. “And part of theproblem is that most people just don’t really know about it, they’resimply not aware of how bad it really is.”

Hendleydoes not believe that people simply don’t care — quite the opposite, infact — but that there is no frame of reference in our society. Heexplained it with a simple example: “We might know what it’s like to behungry or to have a debilitating disease or to be homeless. But anyonein this country, no matter how poor, whether you’ve lost loved ones orlost your job or are a bum on the street with nothing to your name, youcan still walk into the nearest public restroom, turn on the tap andget clean water. We have no idea what it’s like to walk four milesevery day to get water and know that it still might kill your childwhen you bring it back. It’s not that we in Western culture arepurposely ignoring it; it’s just not something we think about becauseit’s something we’ve never had to face.”

Theorganization enjoyed steady growth for the next couple of years but gota significant boost in 2009 when a friend of Hendley’s, Tasha Sullivan,nominated him for the 2009 CNN Heroes program. From 9,000 nominees, thefield was narrowed down to 28. Then a Blue Ribbon Panel which includedColin Powell, Elton John, Ted Turner, Whoopi Goldberg and others,culled the list even further, down to the Top 10. The name Doc Hendleywas among those 10. Through an internet voting process the public chosethe eventual winner, which was announced Thanksgiving evening on a CNNspecial, “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,” hosted by Anderson Cooperand broadcast live from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. AlthoughHendley did not win the $100,000 first prize, his organization did win$25,000 and priceless exposure and name recognition.

“Ijust want to thank all the people who organized these massive, marathonvoting efforts,” he said. “We will still be able to help around 1,500people with that money, and now a whole lot of folks know who we areand what we do. That should help make fund-raising a lot easier.”

Asof October, Hendley estimated that Wine To Water had provided roughly26,500 with potable drinking water and had drilled no fewer than 110wells. But, he added, it is not the actual welldrilling that is hismost important job.

“Themost important thing we do is water filtration,” he explained. “Not ona massive community level, because they don’t have that in the villageswhere we go, so you have to do it on a household level. The sad thingis that you can get a bucket of clean water out of a well and it willbe contaminated in five minutes because of flies, fecal matter and allthe bacteria in these environments. So the best way for decreasingdiarrheal disease, which is what’s killing these children, is byputting some type of filter, either bio-sand or ceramic, in the actualhomes.”

Currently,Wine To Water has three full-time employees at its Boone office and twoout of country. While on a project he will generally hire 15 to 20temporary workers and eight to 10 volunteers, but sends no advance teamto hire labor, scout locations and line up ground transportation.

“Nope, it’s just me,” he shrugged.

“Mostof my trips now are only a couple of weeks at a time because theprojects continue to run after I leave. I do rely heavily on theexpertise of our board, many of whom are involved in humanitarian work.”

Aftera brief holiday break, Hendley already has his itinerary set for thefirst few months of 2010, putting the money he won from the CNN Heroesprogram to good use.

“I’llhead to South America, to Peru and Equador, first, then to Africa, toUganda and Kenya and possibly Sudan, and then to Southeast Asia, toCambodia,” he said, adding, “I usually go where I have some form ofconnection, either through a partnering organization or the advice ofmy board. We probably have 10 other programs that we would like tobegin, but lack of funding keeps us from starting. That always seems todictate where we go and when.”

Clearly,awareness of both the worldwide water crisis and Hendley’s efforts toalleviate it is growing, perhaps even exponentially, but he is under noillusions that his endeavors will amount to little more than, no punintended, a drop in the bucket.

“Mygoal is to have reached one million people by five years from now,” hecommented, “but considering the fact that UN figures say that 1.5million people a year die from water-related illnesses, all of thempreventable, you see what we’re up against. Sure, it’s fixable but it’sa long process. The problem is that one billion people lack access andthat population is the one that is increasing the fastest. The only wayto slow population growth is through education, but you can’t justbuild schools and expect to fix it. Kids who are having to walk two hours each way toget water are not going to be able to learn even if they have a schoolto go to. We’re not addressing the fundamental problem, we’ve got ourpriorities in the wrong order.

“Itwill be the next generation, not mine, that will change this watercrisis. I’ll help plant the seeds but I’ll not make much of a dent init. It needs a lot more help than what I bring.”

WhetherDoc Hendley realizes it or not, he brings more than he’s willing toadmit. Every generation needs heroes to inspire the next, and, throughhis strength and perseverance, he has already accomplished that.

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