Salva's Dream: A conversation with Water for South Sudan Founder Salva Dut

Salva speaks with his father.

Salva speaks with his father.

Former Director of Development Cindy DeCarolis interviewed WFSS Founder Salva Dut to hear his perspective on the past 15 years and his future aspirations. As the celebratory 15th anniversary year comes to a close, we are grateful for our supporters that help us to water the seeds of change in South Sudan.

CD: Everyone has heard the story of you visiting your father, sick from drinking contaminated water, and deciding to drill a well for him. What were you thinking / feeling at the time?

Salva: I had a small idea, to drill one well. When I went back (to southern Sudan) I saw the need and kept going. I saw how having fresh water was helping so many people and creating stable communities and healthy children and schools were built.

CD: Why did you believe in this dream to drill a well for your father?

Salva: In this world if you believe in something you can do it. I trusted myself.

CD: How confident were you that you could bring this dream to fruition?

Salva: When I was walking with the “Lost Boys” we didn’t have adults to make decisions so we had to make our own. I made decisions and most were successful. I picked up decision making skills and gained confidence.

CD: Do you remember with whom you first shared this idea?

Salva: John Bevier

CD: What was his reaction?

Salva: It was an immediate “yes, I believe in you.” Then he said “let’s go for a walk.” We walked around his neighborhood in Pittsford; John asked questions and we talked. John suggested I write a business plan. I took a business plan class through SCORE to learn how to do that.  

John introduced me to Scott Arrington and Scott knew a lawyer who could help register the organization as a nonprofit. I needed a treasurer and I asked Chris Moore. Nobody said no. When we went to the lawyer he gave me big discounts. He charged me $500 and I had just $500 in my account.

These were all St. Paul’s (Episcopal Church) people. In the beginning it was all St. Paul’s. John and I presented the idea to Reverend Fred Reynolds and he took it to the Outreach Committee. Laura Hayden gave me the first donation, she handed me a check for $500. The Outreach Committee approved a contribution of $50,000 – that funded the first well. Then First Presbyterian Church of Caledonia came onboard. Glenn Balch read the article in the paper (Ben Dobbin’s article in the D&C) and called me. He brought John Turner and Rotary.

CD: What were some of the challenges that you encountered?

Salva: There were lots of challenges. Sudan was still at war. We had an organization with no foundation and no credit history.

Working in South Sudan was hard. It took three months to drill the first well. There was no infrastructure. I was blessed that I never got sick – there was no healthcare. I had to move equipment across the country and there were no roads, no phones, and no gas stations.

I would disappear for six months at a time with no way to get word to the Board. People trusted me and believed in me.

CD: Was your father surprised when you showed up in his village to drill a well?

Salva: He was always happy to see me, but he was shocked. He had no idea that I had been planning to come back. The people in his village had never seen a well. When the well was built the people were amazed to see clean water coming from dry land. My father said “I had no idea we were sitting on clean water all this time.”

CD: Did you expect Water for South Sudan to become what it is today?

Salva: I had a vision and I knew we would grow as long as we were doing good work.

CD: What are you most proud of accomplishing with WFSS?

Salva: The seeds that we plant that trigger other things to allow the people of South Sudan to be able to help themselves.

CD: Where would you like to see WFSS go next?

Salva: We have a good mission. I am hopeful that WFSS will keep thriving and extend itself. South Sudan is still lacking water, sanitation, and hygiene services. I want to do more than just drilling wells.

CD: Looking out 15 years in the future what would you see WFSS accomplish?

Salva: We haven’t reached the entire country of South Sudan yet. I want to see WFSS extend to neglected areas with extreme water shortages. In 15 years I hope that WFSS has accomplished bringing enough wells, sanitation facilities, and improved hygiene practices to everyone in South Sudan.

A Conversation with Bishop Jack McKelvey, Retired Episcopal Bishop of Rochester

Jack and Salva at our 2017 fundraising brunch.

Jack and Salva at our 2017 fundraising brunch.

Jack McKelvey came to the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester in 1999 and became Bishop in 2000. He met Salva Dut, founder of WFSS and former "Lost Boy" or "Walking Boy" of Sudan, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Salva had been worshiping at St. Paul’s for several years. “It was fascinating to talk to someone with his story to tell,” said Jack.

The Episcopal Diocese became involved with another 50 “Walking Boys” who came to Rochester. Jack reached out to the Red Wings General Manager and asked if they would provide the group with tickets to a game. The group, including Salva, was welcomed to the game, invited down on the field and given baseballs, Kodak cameras, and hats.

After the Red Wings game, Jack would see Salva at Wegmans, where Salva worked, and other places around town. They got to know each other and became friendly. “Salva always said that he ultimately wanted to go back home to do something for his people,” noted Jack. After Salva visited his father, ill from drinking contaminated water, he realized that how he would help would be by bringing clean water to those who had none.

Salva reached out to Jack for help with fundraising. Jack’s initial thought was “this is an incredibly large task to raise money to do what he wants to do in a country we don’t know.” But Jack knew Salva well enough to know it was possible. “The way he told his story, people just gravitated to him”, he said. Jack hosted a meeting with Salva, Jim Blake, and Scott Arrington to talk about fundraising.

Jack continued to meet with Salva periodically, but Jim and Scott were instrumental in getting more people on board with the project. Things really began to turn around when Linda Sue Park wrote A Long Walk to Water (ALWTW,) said Jack. The challenge was managing growth. The two greatest gifts WFSS ever received were, ALWTW and John Turner,” Jack reflected.

John Turner carried WFSS through a major growth spurt. John would talk to Jack about receiving phone calls from Salva at 3:00 a.m. John would be on the phone in his pajamas solving day to day problems. “It was all volunteers,” said Jack, “Chris Moore, Scott Arrington, and Nancy Frank also helped.”

Upon retiring in 2008 Jack joined the WFSS Board of Directors and still serves on the Board today. When the Episcopal Diocese asked Jack what gift they could present him to thank him for his service Jack asked that they raise money to fund a trust in the Diocese with the purpose of supporting the Millennium Development Goals. Three of the first four grants from the fund went to WFSS. “I’ll never touch people that far away in any other way,” Jack remarked.

When I asked Jack if he expected WFSS to become what it is today, he responded “I never stopped to think about that. I assumed we would just keep on keeping on.” Jack noted that it was Bob Shea who pulled WFSS into a new awareness with strategic planning; “I realized then that there are a whole lot of people counting on WFSS.” Jack also praised WFSS Executive Director Lynn Malooly for her leadership, “she is adept at pulling all the strings together,” and Board member Angelique Stevens for her well evaluation trip, “the notion of Salva and his team developing and building these wells and that they last is remarkable.”

Jack has represented WFSS at several schools and stated “I don’t know when I have felt any prouder of WFSS than when I have gone to schools. To see the pride in those young people who have read ALWTW and embraced Salva’s dream amazes me.”

Jack concluded our conversation commenting, “That we have 320 wells and provide water for close to 500,000 people is astounding. I am so happy, very pleased that the wells have lasted.”

An Interview with Robin Hill

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Robin Hill is a long-time supporter of Salva and Water for South Sudan. Robin co-wrote an adaptation of Salva's story called "Just Add Water" which is a picture book version for younger readers. Cindy DeCarolis, Director of Development at Water for South Sudan, interviewed Robin on some of his experiences over the years.

CD:        Tell me a little about how you first met Salva.

RH:       Actually my wife first met Salva when he was working at Wegmans. We had spent two years in the Peace Corps in Kenya. My wife knew Salva was African, so she talked to him about that. She invited him to dinner and cooked African food, from there our friendship developed.

CD:        What did you think the first time Salva talked of building a well for his father?

RH:       I was surprised that his dad was still alive. I thought he was lost forever. Salva believed that because he was given opportunities here that he owed it to his people to go back and help them. We had long conversations about this and Salva had many ideas. I was happy that he found something that he wanted to do. I felt good for him that he had found his one way to give back.

CD:        Why did you believe in his dream?

RH:       When you meet Salva and hear his story, what he went through and that he thrived, you get a sense that he has a higher purpose in life.

CD:        What was your role in helping to bring WFSS and Salva’s dream to fruition?

RH:       When Salva was putting together his Board of Directors he needed a person with in-country experience for validity. He knew of my Peace Corps experience and invited me to join the Board. I also introduced Salva to churches and schools where he spoke.  

As the organization became more complex they needed expertise in specific areas and they had others on the Board who had been to Africa. I stepped back at this point to open up a Board seat for someone with the skills that were needed.

CD:        What were some of the challenges you encountered in founding WFSS?

RH:       The biggest challenge was the direction of the Board. There was internal Board debate around what we wanted to do and what other organizations were doing and comparing the cost of purchasing equipment to contracting. The Board was not unified initially.

CD:        Did you expect WFSS to become what it is today?

RH:       Yes and no. I envisioned drilling a high quantity of wells and turning lives around. The surprise was the international response through A Long Walk to Water. When the book was read in my daughter’s class she said 'I know Salva; he lives in our basement sometimes', her teacher was skeptical.

CD:        What are you most proud of accomplishing with WFSS?

RH:       I am proud that I was there for the start and that I helped to get it on its feet, seeing the whole thing spring up from nothing to what it is today.

CD:        Are there any other thoughts you would like to share?

RH:       I am waiting for the day when A Long Walk to Water becomes a movie. It is such a compelling story.     

Nancy Frank Talks about WFSS’s Early Days

Nancy and Salva at our 2016 fundraising brunch.

Nancy and Salva at our 2016 fundraising brunch.

When Nancy Frank first met WFSS Founder Salva Dut he was 19 years old and had just arrived in Rochester, New York. Nancy was the Coordinator of Outreach and Mission at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It was her responsibility to help the refugees that St. Paul’s sponsored to get acclimated to life in Rochester. In 1995-1996, most of the South Sudanese in Rochester were Nuer. Salva arrived in 1996 and being Dinka he didn’t have a support network among other South Sudanese. Nancy assisted him in finding housing and a job at Wegmans.

“St. Paul’s embraced Salva in a way they hadn’t embraced other refugees,” said Nancy, “Everyone knew him and wanted him to succeed." When Salva was working as a cashier at Wegmans in Pittsford his line would often be the longest, because people from St. Paul’s would all get into his line to say hello. Nancy shared another story about Salva working at Wegmans. “One day while working the cash register Salva was robbed,” Nancy said, “Salva chased the thief out into the parking lot to get the money back.”  This story is a tribute to Salva’s sense of responsibility – he was not going to let anyone steal from Wegmans.

Nancy Frank and board member Angelique Stevens in South Sudan, 2008

Nancy Frank and board member Angelique Stevens in South Sudan, 2008

Nancy knew that Salva wanted to do something to help his people. When he started talking about drilling a well for his father Nancy understood the need. She had been to South Sudan several times and knew the lay of the land. She had seen women carrying water, as well as non-functioning wells and hand dug wells that turned to mud, dried up, or caved in taking lives. “I tried carrying water on my head,” Nancy remembered, “I couldn’t do it.”

Nancy noted that Salva pulled together a wonderful team. Nancy was invited to join the WFSS Board. She was practical. She saw barriers where others could see that it could work. “It was fun to be part of that,” she said. 

“The right people came to the Board at the right time, bringing special talents” Nancy said. “John Bevier was a wonderful idea person. John Turner worked the problems to death, until he found solutions. Chris Moore had the leadership and drive. Glenn Balch has done so much and Don Fairman was the right person at the right time. Everyone had a piece of this huge puzzle.”

The Board met in Nancy’s living room until the Rotary folks came on board. “This was a wonderful development,” Nancy remarked, “Salva was invited to speak at Rotary meetings and then he joined Penfield Rotary Club. All of Rotary International knows WFSS and Salva’s journey.”

Nancy led a team of Board members and others to experience the drilling operation in 2008. Everyone worked together. “My job was mixing cement,” Nancy recalled.  Nobody expected WFSS to become what it is today. The original mission was to drill a well for Salva’s father. “It felt a shame to stop with one well, we thought we would just drill some wells in neighboring villages,” Nancy said.  It has grown way beyond that, with 325 wells drilled to date.

I asked Nancy what she was most proud of accomplishing with WFSS. She responded “that we did it, we put it on the ground, and we have affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. It is one of the most amazing things I have been a part of in my life.”

Read about other Founding Board members here.