One person can make a difference. Just ask Ryan Hreljac (pronounced hurl-jack), who is 15 and lives in Canada. Without his help, hundreds of wells that now provide fresh water for people in Africa, Central America, and India might never have been built.
Ryan is what you might call a water ambassador. He travels the world to tell people how they can help solve a big problem: the lack of safe drinking water in many developing countries.
"Everybody can do something," Ryan says.
Sometimes African-born Jimmy Akana – who is like a brother to Ryan – travels with him to explain how water changed his life. The story of the two boys is the subject of a new children's book, "Ryan and Jimmy and the Well in Africa That Brought Them Together," written by Herb Shoveller and published by Kids Can Press.
Ryan's efforts didn't begin in a far-off place, though, but right at home in Kemptville, Ontario. In 1998, when he was 6 years old, Ryan learned from his teacher that children in Africa often must walk miles each day to find water. Some even die from drinking bad water, his teacher said.
So Ryan decided to act. He did chores for his parents, Susan and Mark, and for neighbors. He spoke to schools, churches, and clubs about his goal. The word spread, and donations began coming in. After several months of hard work, Ryan had raised $2,000, enough to dig one well.
An organization called Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief (CPAR) chose a location for the well in the village of Agweo, in Uganda (in central eastern Africa). Ryan began writing to a pen pal there – Jimmy – who was 9 and whose parents had disappeared in a civil war.
In 2000, CPAR arranged for Ryan to visit Uganda for the opening ceremony of the well. Ryan and Jimmy met then and formed a close friendship that took a dramatic turn in 2003. Jimmy's life was in danger from the war, so Ryan's parents obtained permission for him to come to Canada and join their family. That has been his home ever since.
After the first well, "the ripple effect took over," Ryan says, "and one goal led to another."
With adult help, he founded Ryan's Well Foundation four years ago to educate people about the vital importance of water. Now the foundation has raised more than $1.5 million and built 255 wells that serve more than 427,000 people in 12 countries.
Its website (www.ryanswell.ca) lists some of the famous people Ryan has met and the awards he has received, such as the Order of Ontario, the province's highest honor.
But Ryan isn't bragging. "The most impressive people I've met are the other kids who want to help, too," he says. "The only reason I accept awards is that each word I say when I get one might help one more person."
These days, Ryan is a busy 10th-grader who plays football and ice hockey and likes studying computer technology.
As for his future, he says he doesn't "exactly know what career I will choose, something along the lines of a lawyer or a teacher. Maybe prime minister!"
Jimmy, who is a champion wrestler and runner, will stay in secondary school for a few more years to improve his English before deciding what to study in college.
Last summer, the entire family went to Australia, where Ryan spoke about his mission and found time on the side to learn to surf with Jimmy, as well as with his other brothers, Jordan, 17, and Keegan, 12.
Ryan says he travels less during the school year now than when he was younger because teachers "are a lot stricter now about missing classes." Still, he squeezed in a trip to China in October to speak at a conference.
Asked if he ever feels discouraged that many people still lack good water, Ryan says, "It's important to be an optimist. When people are dying on the other side of the world, to sit in your house and say, 'I can't really help,' that's not the person I want to be.
"I'm just a typical kid. I had a small dream, and I stayed with it. Everybody can do something."