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Blindfold Magazine- Interview with Drop in the Bucket Director Stacey Travis

Following the United Nations’ Millennium Summit in 2000, all 189 United Nations members and over 23 international organizations pledged to accomplish eight distinct goals by 2015.

These Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) emphasized human capital, infrastructure, human rights and included the eradication of hunger; universal education; eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reducing child mortality rates; improving maternal health and empowering women; gender equality; combating HIV, AIDs, and other diseases; and developing a global partnership for development.

Yet, in the 15 years since the UN established the Millennium Development Goals, Africa has had severe shortcomings, according to data from World Health Organization and UNICEF’s Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation.

While North Africa shows 90 percent of its regions are using improved sources of water, sub-Saharan Africa has only 30 percent coverage, an uptick of 4 percent since 1990. As one of the world’s most water stressed regions, sub-Saharan Africa suffers from stalled development in health, education, and economic productivity, much owed to the scarcity of clean water.

Yet, programs which aim to curb water scarcity not only face tremendous challenges in bringing clean water to rural communities, but in creating sustainable programs that can empower a community to maintain a clean water environment.

Executive director of Drop in the Bucket (DROP), Stacey Travis, is looking to overcome these challenges in sub-Saharan Africa, specically Uganda and South Sudan. Her organization builds wells and sanitation systems at schools, looking to boost school enrollment, empower women and communities and improve child health in regions known for high child-mortality rates.

I had the opportunity of speaking with Stacey about DROP, the challenges and successes her organization has seen, and what the first class world can do to support these initiatives.

BFM: What inspired you and John Travis to establish Drop in the Bucket? Was it clear in the beginning what you wanted to accomplish?

Stacey: We founded DROP in 2006. I was producing televisions shows at the time and really felt like I needed to do something positive to give back. My brother was traveling to Uganda with a team of doctors, who went there every year, and I was planning to tag along and help in whatever way I could. At one point one of the doctors conceded that the most frustrating part of his work was going back each year to find the same people sick with the same illnesses from drinking dirty water. So that was definitely the spark.

Next, we began thinking about strategies for keeping girls in school. That is one of the biggest issues that I see impacting the regions where we’re working. The girls are being pulled out of school at puberty so half of the population is not educated. This means they are not able to contribute financially to the family and they are less equipped to take care of their own health or the health of their families. There is a huge list of things that are impacted by this one issue. So we are now also focusing on that. We are forming girls clubs and initiating menstrual hygiene campaigns, which include training on how to sew reusable sanitary pads.

So to answer your question — no way — I had no idea how things would evolve. But once you immerse yourself in the culture and surround yourself with the problem, it becomes clear that the first world solutions we had in the beginning were somewhat unrealistic.

BFM: What is your role at Drop in the Bucket?

Stacey: I am the director. I spend half of the year in Africa, splitting my time between Uganda and South Sudan. My main job is to work directly with our field teams in both countries to develop our program, monitor our work, follow up with schools and document our impact. I am also constantly working on strengthening our relationships with the local leaders, from village chiefs to county water and education officials and all the way up to national level ministers. We’ve learned that it’s very important to involve them in our work plan and have their input and support for our activities.

BFM: What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a part of Drop in the Bucket?

Stacey: Seeing that enrollment has increased at a school due to our work. That makes it all worthwhile. We just drilled our 200th well and knowing we’ve provided water to that many people certainly makes me happy. But when I see the school population grow, and maybe a girl who had dropped out of school has come back, that feels like a true accomplishment. Because our view is that we are trying to initiate long-term change and the best way to really help a community out of poverty is through education.

BFM: What has been a defining moment for Drop in the Bucket?

Stacey: It’s always exciting for me when I meet high-level offcials in Uganda or South Sudan who know us and comment on our program or our impact. Water is a big problem in these areas and supporting education is a challenge for everybody. Although most of the schools we work in are extremely remote, there are tons of children out there who are relying on those institutions for their education and their future. So when I meet big officials who tell me how happy they are with our work and how much it is helping their country — it’s pretty cool.

We also constructed a toilet at a school that was about to be closed down by the health inspector due to poor sanitation. Because of us stepping in, the school was allowed to stay open. This is a big school of around 800 kids who would have been sent home. That stuff makes me happy.

BFM: What is the scope of DROP’s mission?

Stacey: Well, it began with water and sanitation (and all that goes with that, such as hygiene campaigns, etc.) Then it expanded to community trainings, such as our village savings and loan groups. Now it also includes our gender empowerment program, aimed at keeping the girls in school. And we’re about to launch another campaign where we’re producing a series of animated videos that we plan to take to the villages in order to encourage better hygiene and stress the importance of staying in school. We are in the early stages of developing that but are very excited about the long-term potential there.

Ultimately, we’d like to see every girl in the schools we’re working complete primary school. It’s a lofty goal, but we are dedicated to helping identify the right components to make that happen. Right now we are working with a grant to track our progress at 10 schools over five years. The goal is to document which initiatives are actually impacting girl enrollment rates.

BFM: What impact have new wells and other programs you have launched with DROP had on these communities?

Stacey: We are documenting increased enrollment in schools where we are working, particularly when you add water and sanitation.
And having access to water frees the women up for other activities. Otherwise they are spending their days walking long distances, often for dirty water…These are just tiny businesses but it works wonders on a village level — selling beans, piglets, local staples, that sort of thing. But we are also seeing that the members are spending their profits on things like school fees for their children. So again, it makes me so happy to see it all come back around to empowering through education.

We are also beginning to track the rate of illnesses reported after the water is drilled. We are in the early stages of this, but we do have records from the Ministry of Health in certain areas showing high numbers of children with typhoid and various parasites from drinking contaminated water before we came in.

BFM: Is Drop in the Bucket collaborating with other organizations? If so, how?

Stacey: In the field we all work together to share ideas and assist each other. There is a big job out there and no organization can do
it alone. Last year UNICEF gave us two trucks and we meet with those guys pretty regularly. Right now they are interested in two of our ideas, which we hope they will ultimately end up funding in South Sudan. We all attend humanitarian coordination meetings and most everybody working in an area knows each other. We are also talking to a couple of organizations now about collaborating on projects where we provide water, they provide school lunches or toilets. Then there is an organization from the Netherlands called SNV that has been very helpful in assisting us in recruiting topnotch staff.

In this country we are also working with a number of wonderful organizations. Two of our favorites are HOPE 2O and H2O For Life.

BFM: How have African communities responded to DROP’s initiatives?

Stacey: We have a lot of friends in the field. Water is fundamental. So we get a lot of love from the communities where we work.

BFM: What have been the main obstacles you have faced, either with running DROP or in Africa?

Stacey: Funding is always a challenge. Our accountant was just commenting that we sure get a lot done on a minimal operating budget. That’s the biggest challenge. We are adamant that the money goes to the right places. So most of our staff and operations are in Africa. We aren’t like some organizations that have big marketing budgets. We are on the front lines and focusing our attention there. So many people here don’t know about us. I guess that’s the hardest part for us — staying true to our mission of really helping the people on the ground, while still getting people here to know about us.

BFM: What have you learned in your time with DROP that you feel Americans are largely ignorant about?

Stacey: I think everybody likes to throw money at issues and expect that to solve the problems. In the aid world, you are working with human beings. These are people who have often experienced extremely traumatic experiences. Everybody I know and work with out there deals with death constantly — these are their loved ones (often babies and children). So sometimes going in with first-world solutions and expecting the villagers to be immediately thrilled is a little naive. They are often hungry and focused on getting food for their family. With these communities, change takes time, patience and a lot of follow up. Clean water is a wonderful first step. And anything that strengthens education is invaluable. So I guess the biggest thing I have learned is to know when to stop talking and start listening. One solution does not fit all situations. I’ve found that it’s best to work with the people, see what they want, understand their needs and start from there.

BFM: What do you need annually in order to accomplish what you do?

Stacey: The great thing about our program is we can expand or contract based on funding. We are pretty lean here in the U.S. and have great teams in the field who can gear up and do more at a moment’s notice. So we do as much as we can with our annual donations and a few small grants. This year we have completed about 40 wells. But we could have a more profound impact with more funding. Right now, I wish we had $2,000,000 a year to work with. We don’t yet, but we are getting there, slowly.

BFM: How can people contribute to your organization?

Stacey: The way we got things off the ground initially was by asking our donors to fund entire wells, and when they did, we let them place an inscription on it. That was such a tangible way of showing people their impact and it also helped them feel confident about where their money was going. That’s been amazing for us. We’ve had a lot of success with school children, churches, families, groups of friends, clubs, individuals, etc. all getting involved by funding a well. They’ve hosted dinners, cocktail parties and events of all kinds.

We’ve also had companies fund wells to help promote employee morale. One company in Ohio funded a project and we happened to be in town. So we went to the factory and personally presented the employees with a slideshow of the well their company funded and photos of all the happy children. They loved it.

And we had a group of girls here in LA who decided one year to go in together and buy a well instead of spending money on random birthday and holiday gifts. That was beautiful. They named their well “sisterhood.”

Right now it costs $6,000 to build a well in Uganda and $7,000 in South Sudan. So it’s a realistic goal. And we send lots of photos and personal stories from the school, with the children smiling and drinking the clean water. Donors love that direct connection.

BFM: How can people get involved or help?

Stacey: We hear from people every day who have the biggest hearts and really want to help. Some just want to go there personally and roll up their sleeves and help dig a well. Although that’s not really feasible, there are so many things people can do here to help.

On our website there is a GET INVOLVED page. They can go there and start a fundraising campaign.
Also, like everybody, we rely on social media to spread awareness. So they can like us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

And we are always looking for creative people like artists, animators, editors, bloggers who want to help out. Since we work so hard at keeping our operating costs low, we appeal to those creative support- ers to chip in when they can and help with things like that.

BFM: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Stacey: This work has been a gift. It’s really allowed us to experience an incredible side of humanity. If you watch the news or read certain papers, it’s easy to feel like the entire world is negative, greedy and self-absorbed. But it’s not true. I come face-to-face with amazing people all the time who are dedicated to making the world a better place. They approach us because they have a strong desire to give back. And many of them are trying desperately to raise socially conscious children in an ever-increasing materialistic world. Despite what mainstream media is trying to tell us… or sell us, I think we have more of an opportunity than ever to make our world a better place. And I think people are taking advantage of that.

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