Son of GSE alums crusades for clean water
Ryan Hreljac (left), founder of Ryan’s Well Foundation, saved his money as a kid to finance a well in Uganda.
Ryan Hreljac is a typical 16-year-old. He plays sports, spends time on the computer, loves to sleep, and is up to his neck in schoolwork. But there’s one thing that makes him stand out, besides his lanky 6-foot-6-inch frame.
He’s the founder of Ryan’s Well Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Kemptville, Ont., Canada. It has raised more than US$3 million to fund nearly 320 water projects serving almost 500,000 people in 14 countries since it was created in 2001, according to his mother, Susan, who is its executive director. She participated in a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange (GSE) to France in 1992-93. Her husband, Mark, traveled on a GSE to Mexico in 1991-92.
Ryan’s interest in clean water started when he was just six years old. His first-grade teacher, during a school charity drive for developing countries, rattled off a list of items that their donations could buy. She said $70 could fund a well. As Ryan recalls, she told the class that people were dying because they didn’t have access to clean water and that some had to walk several kilometers to get a drink.
“I thought that was unfair, so I decided to do something about it,” says Ryan, who was named a Paul Harris Fellow in 2004. “I went home and said, ‘Can I have $70 to build a well in Africa?’”
“Being good parents, we ignored him,” his mother says. “One night at dinner he was still pestering us. He said, ‘You don’t get it. Someone just died because they didn’t have clean water.’ I thought, ‘Whoa.’”
They decided to let him do extra chores to earn the money. Ryan collected pinecones for his grandmother’s craft projects, vacuumed, and washed windows. “If he didn’t do a good job, I’d make him redo it,” Susan says.
Ryan saved the money he earned in a cookie tin. Four months later, he reached his goal and presented his tin to an official at WaterCan, a charity dedicated to clean water.
He was told, however, that a well would actually cost about $2,000. “I said I’d do more chores,” Ryan recalls. He kept doing them, but in the meantime his story picked up momentum in the media, and donations started coming in. In 2000, he traveled to Uganda to visit the well that he helped finance.
Ryan has since become the face of his foundation, which has worked on water projects with Rotary clubs and has a Rotarian board member. He’s also given numerous speeches to various groups, including Rotarians, Rotaractors, and Interactors.
For other young people – or anyone – looking to make a difference, Ryan offers this advice: “Find something that you’re passionate about. The world is a huge puzzle. You have to figure out where your piece fits. My piece was clean water. You don’t have to devote your life to something. Have fun – but at the end of the day, it’s important to lend a hand and give back.”