By the glow of a Christmas tree decorated with water bottles, Bob Dell and Fraser Edwards appealed to their party guests: Your $10 gift will provide one of the world's poorest children with clean water for life.
Instead, they received $1 million from one guest.
That's how much entrepreneur Gregg McNair, 63, handed over at the Dec. 15 fundraiser in New York for Dell and Edwards' small clean-water nonprofit, The Water School (TWS). The holiday windfall will enable the organization to bring its novel, low-tech water purification approach to many more of the world's poorest villages.
Founded in 2007, TWS is achieving significant health gains in Uganda, Kenya and southern Sudan, where freshwater sources are scarce. Dysentery cases are generally down 77 percent and school attendance is up about 25 percent in areas where the program has operated.
Ten dollars is enough to supply a person with two plastic bottles and training by the organization to purify water by using sunlight. While one water-filled bottle hangs in the sun, allowing ultraviolet rays to kill bacteria, the second bottle is used for drinking water. With McNair's gift, the organization will be able to devote all future 2011 donations directly to bottles and education.
Dell, 68, a water scientist, began the program by searching for a cleaning method that people can continue to use long after educators leave their villages or communities. He refined what's known as the SODIS (solar disinfection) system to make water purification as cheap and simple as possible.
"The children aren't sick anymore and the teachers are happy, because the students score far better on their national examinations," says Edwards, 65. "And mothers are happy because they aren't spending scarce money on medication, so there is an economic lift for the family.
"In addition," he says, "when families don't need to scour the land for firewood to clean their water, there is a beneficial environmental impact."
Haiti is the latest region to benefit from the school's program. In areas where the nonprofit has run its education program, "the cholera impact has been minimal," Edwards says. "Doctors there tell us that they would not have had a cholera epidemic if [The] Water School had been teaching in Haiti three years ago."
The nonprofit's financial goal is to raise $2.5 million so TWS can bring its program to all of Haiti and prevent future outbreaks of cholera — a goal that McNair's gift has made more doable.
But McNair isn't simply limiting his efforts to gifts of money. He's also leading his own novel fundraising event in March — a climb up Kilimanjaro. All proceeds will benefit TWS.
"This is an incredible organization that has done so much already," he says. "I just want to see them grow and help even more people well into the future."
The 3-year-old nonprofit is just getting started — as are Dell and Edwards.
"It's given me a reason not to retire," Edwards says. "When I think of our work, a whole parade of faces who The Water School has saved run past my eyes. It's incredibly satisfying to see the changed lives."