Dec. 16, 2009 12:00

Working-class hero


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


There must be times when Doc Hendley feels he is living in a world alone. He must lie awake at night wondering if he is the only one who grasps the severity of the problem facing the world around him, if his self-mandated mission to help remedy it is too daunting, if indeed there is any hope at all.

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

Except that in Hendley’s case, work is as far away from the 9-to-5 world as is imaginable — literally. The places his work takes him are the most unimaginably poverty-stricken, war-torn, Godforsaken outposts on the planet. 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.

What Hendley does, at the risk of oversimplification, is dig wells and build water-purification systems for remote villagers who have no access to clean water and no means to better their situation. He, perhaps more than almost any person on the planet, has observed firsthand the effects that stifling poverty and unsanitary living conditions have on people. While he carries around in his head an arsenal of statistics that bolster his contention that the next world war will be fought over water, not oil, a far more powerful argument is his description of what it’s like to hold a malnourished and disease-ridden child as she takes her final breath, the nauseating stench of the dead and dying, the wide-eyed wonderment and undying gratitude of a villager when he takes his 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 way of 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.


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

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

His curiosity and then his passions aroused, Hendley took it a step further, organizing an event designed to raise both awareness and funds. He dubbed it “Wine To Water,” a double entendre reversing the order of Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine for the marriage ceremony at Cana.

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

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

Hendley knew 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, headed by Rev. Billy Graham’s son Rev. Franklin Graham, that has a long history of supporting humanitarian and charitable causes on a global scale. But rather than taking the money, they told him to keep it and instead offered him a job.

“I told 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. But something happened and they said they didn’t have anyone on the ground yet in Darfur, Sudan, and asked if I’d be willing to go. So six months after I’d had my first event in January 2004, here I found myself in Darfur.”

Hendley wound up spending a full year in what is arguably the most hopeless region on earth. To say it was a life-altering experience would be a gross understatement.

“During the year I was there, the Janjaweed militia, which are the Sudanese death squads, killed over 120,000 people,” he said somberly. “Not only do they mow down black African Muslims indiscriminately but they put the dead bodies into the wells, polluting the ground water and taking this most desperate resource that they need more than anything else. That was the first time I saw water used as a weapon, and it changed my view completely. Seeing those horrible things that could be done with water fueled my passion even more and solidified my involvement.”

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

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

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

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

Hendley does not believe that people simply don’t care — quite the opposite, in fact — but that there is no frame of reference in our society. He explained it with a simple example: “We might know what it’s like to be hungry or to have a debilitating disease or to be homeless. But anyone in this country, no matter how poor, whether you’ve lost loved ones or lost your job or are a bum on the street with nothing to your name, you can still walk into the nearest public restroom, turn on the tap and get clean water. We have no idea what it’s like to walk four miles every day to get water and know that it still might kill your child when you bring it back. It’s not that we in Western culture are purposely ignoring it; it’s just not something we think about because it’s something we’ve never had to face.”

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

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

As of October, Hendley estimated that Wine To Water had provided roughly 26,500 with potable drinking water and had drilled no fewer than 110 wells. But, he added, it is not the actual welldrilling that is his most important job.

“The most important thing we do is water filtration,” he explained. “Not on a massive community level, because they don’t have that in the villages where we go, so you have to do it on a household level. The sad thing is that you can get a bucket of clean water out of a well and it will be contaminated in five minutes because of flies, fecal matter and all the bacteria in these environments. So the best way for decreasing diarrheal disease, which is what’s killing these children, is by putting some type of filter, either bio-sand or ceramic, in the actual homes.”

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

“Nope, it’s just me,” he shrugged.

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

After a brief holiday break, Hendley already has his itinerary set for the first few months of 2010, putting the money he won from the CNN Heroes program to good use.

“I’ll head to South America, to Peru and Equador, first, then to Africa, to Uganda and Kenya and possibly Sudan, and then to Southeast Asia, to Cambodia,” he said, adding, “I usually go where I have some form of connection, either through a partnering organization or the advice of my board. We probably have 10 other programs that we would like to begin, but lack of funding keeps us from starting. That always seems to dictate where we go and when.”

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

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

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

Whether Doc Hendley realizes it or not, he brings more than he’s willing to admit. Every generation needs heroes to inspire the next, and, through his strength and perseverance, he has already accomplished that.

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