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What It Costs

April 15, 2013

Secluded in a corner office of a small business building in a tidy but inconsequential part of Kalamazoo, MI is a picture of Daren Wendell.  There he is in a wooded “you’re gonna need a helicopter to come get you if you hurt yourself” mountain scene:  wild man beard, steely determined eyes glaring ahead, and orange backpack the size of an electric car shouldered on.  Written around the picture is an article about him that appeared in Men’s Health during his walk across the United States.  Sitting in front him now – well groomed goatee, neutral toned fitted business casual clothes, staplers, computer screens, pie charts, and the rest neatly stowed around – you could think the man who had burned his life to the ground and set out to walk the world has finally been tamed.

A room next to him stuffed neatly with files, photos of children and horses – lots of horses – is his partner’s in ActiveWater: Amie Hadaway.  It is a picture of the ideal modern woman with conquering foot planted firmly in two worlds: family and work.  It gives the office an even more domesticated feel.

Underneath the scene of office orderliness, however, something wild pulses.  Something threatening.  If you are quiet when you are in there, you can palpably feel it trying to scratch its way out of the frames of pictures of Africans and Cambodians smiling on the wall and escape out of the door and into the world.  And you can tell, if you are quiet, that the inhabitants of the office feel it too despite their steady voices and professional sheen.  You can tell that there is an air of desperation to it.

All of it.

**

Sometimes great journeys end in a place you wouldn’t fathom.  When Daren Wendell started his quest to walk the world he assumed that he was leaving a corporate world behind.  In his walk journal he wrote that he would rather be walking than “slowly dying behind a computer screen day after day”.  I pondered this as I waited for Daren to finish one of the phone calls he received on his iphone during the interview.  Of course, he said that before the nervous breakdowns from loneliness, lack of control, and physical exhaustion.  If it weren’t for those, I would have been interviewing Daren in some remote part of the world with yaks or something wandering around in the background.  After the phone call I mentioned that he could still be walking today and he simply said “Yep”.

“What’s harder, Daren, walking or this?”

“Definitely this.”

Looking around, the office all of the sudden seemed like an ill fitting shoe on him.  Yes, there were mouse pads, printers, business cards, and the like strewn around.  But the office was a little too spacious on second look.  Massive windows surrounded his desk with foliage pressed up against them.  It gave the illusion in certain spots that you were actually in the woods and not an office.  A bookshelf in the corner contained a neat collection of books on businesses and how-to’s for non-profits.  Wedged nonchalantly in between were much more worn books on biking and hiking.

On his computer monitor was the most interesting clue of all.  Taped to its wide screen was a clumsily large Polaroid style picture.  All of the others in the room were neatly framed, but this one, a little beat up around the edges, was taped cockeyed and protruding, almost imposing itself like an uninvited guest into the neat business style of the room.

On that photograph was a smiling picture of his new wife, Danielle.

*******

“I had a lot of advice for Daren about how to operate ActiveWater and be married.”

Amie Hadaway looked back at me from her desk.  Pictures of her children hovered on the wall above her left shoulder.

Hadaway ‘s office too has the same feel of business orderliness that blurs upon closer inspection.  Family mementos and ActiveWater paraphernalia  are mixed together throughout in a way that gives the feeling that they weren’t delicately arranged as much as two things collided violently and the current arrangement is simply where they ended up after the collision.

In 2007, a spiritual calling did violently collide with Amie, who was then a housewife.  After hearing a sermon on Africa at her church and coincidentally seeing the movie Blood Diamond she came across these verses from Isaiah 58:6., 10-12

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

If you extend your soul to the hungry,
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
Those from among you shall build the old waste places;
You shall raise up the foundation of many generations;
And you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach,
The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.

“After I read that, I had to do something.”

The message of Christ had suddenly transformed from words on a page into a force that took a hold of her.  Suddenly, she could not be the same.  When I asked her, “Why then?  Why Africa?”, she couldn’t answer me other than to say that perhaps a lot of time spent seeking God culminated at one place and time.

So she called charities and non-profits.  She asked if she could do things.  Not being given any significant direction, she made her own and went to local churches raising money for the water crisis.  She and her husband raised $18,000.   That got some attention.  In conversation with Blood Water Mission she found out that they had a new athletic campaigner, Daren Wendell, trying to do a silly thing: walk the world.  He needed a campaigner and media coordinator.  Amie said yes and the seeds of ActiveWater were planted.

Over the next months Amie worked tirelessly for Daren’s campaign.  Being a mother and part of a family business, she struck a deal in her mind that she could work at this as long as it didn’t affect her duties.  So, after she put the kids to bed, she would scour the internet writing letters to supporters or media releases until the wee hours of the morning.  She organized interviews, magazine articles, and news.  She put together a MySpace campaign that won the non-profit site award twice in a row, bringing a significant chunk of money into the campaign.  She even talked on the phone with Daren when he was lonely to spur him on, or, as the both say with laughs, to occasionally write out a prescription from Dr. Suckitup to medicate his attitude when it flagged.

It was naive, however, for her to think that it would not affect her family, she admitted at the end.  At first her passion was novel to them.  But then it started to cause strain.  With a bad economy in Michigan, her “tireless” efforts could have certainly helped her family business which was not sheltered from a recessed country’s ups and downs.  Her passion for alleviating the water crisis drew comparisons to the passion she had for other elements of her life.  Family time became a somewhat scheduled activity.  Balancing these passions did not come without a learning process.  This illustrates the unsung heroes of ActiveWater: family members who sacrificed money, comfort, time, and intimacy in order for the directors to have the necessary fierceness in their care about the water crisis.  Without that fierceness, without the near inability to “put it down” when inconvenient, ActiveWater would just be another job.

Understandably, Amie had concerns for Daren who was, in a sense, enviably single when he decided to marry.  Her words, when summed up, came out to this:

There is a cost.

Your family members share in its payment whether you want that or not.

*****

I asked Daren what ActiveWater had cost him.

“My pride.”

This was funny to me.  This is a guy who sold everything – even his socks – to go for a walk where he was constantly poor, hairy, and stinky.  He had no home.  He used to eat leftovers from other peoples tables when they left eating establishments.  When I met him, he lived in a small room with friends on virtually nothing so that he could work at ActiveWater full time.  He plans stops at casinos in the area when he drives long distances because they give out free coffee.  Never, never have I heard him mention anything that caused me to suspect that he cared one wit about pride.

Yet, the look on his face was serious.  “I want to take care of her but I can’t,” he said while looking over at the photo of Danielle.  There was a time in Daren’s life, working as a pastor, in which he would forget to deposit paychecks because he was making so much.  The life of a non-profit director has not been so financially stable.  Daren described the difficulties ActiveWater has been facing now that it is past its birth and entering into its childhood.  ActiveWater grew very quickly through the combination of hard work and good fortune (or blessing, if you will).  It garnered an award for best new non-profit on the scene that year.  However, the water crisis is a problem that takes dedicated resources over a period of time to solve.  It needs volumes of people to have lightning bolt moments like what happened to Amie that causes them to not only give once, but to make solving it a part of their lives for an extended period of time.  It’s the difference between giving someone a cup of water and teaching them to build a well.

That kind of sacrifice is hard to come by, especially with the number of worthy causes available.  In the hopes of finding an answer to that problem, ActiveWater has become an organization that walks a tight rope between staying grass roots and embracing the very Frankenstein’s monster of American business principles  the church has co-opted into its faith that Daren’ walked away from in the first place.   Incorporating those principles may give them the most bang (and a bigger bang at that) for their buck but embracing it risks an image that becomes faceless, plastic, not relatable, and, ultimately, easy to discard.  Ignoring those principles may mean living month to month for as long as ActiveWater can hold on.

Daren doesn’t see a danger in losing the grass roots soul of ActiveWater.  He has many memorable experiences of attempting to contact non-profits to offer his services only to be rebuffed, ignored, or forgotten.  This strikes a nerve with me as well because I have had the same experience.  ActiveWater has always promised that anyone, anywhere can use their talents and abilities to help others.  Its special characteristic is its willingness to partner with people on their own level and its dedication to swift communication.

“If someone contacts ActiveWater, they either talk to me, Amie, or will receive immediate contact back.”

As if to prove that point, Daren took a call on his iphone.  I wondered, however, as his words over the phone seemed distant and far off, if that could continue with the same purity now that ActiveWater has entered the realm of boards of directors and organizational forecasts.

*****

There IS something desperate that palpates in the offices of ActiveWater.  There is a wildness that lurks within the neat arrangement of banners, pictures, and desks.  Daren and Amie’s interviews were undergirded with an unspoken knowledge that they are aware of that desperate, wild thing.  This unseen force was inside a man who woke up, sold everything he owned, and walked into the wild.  It was there in woman that caused her to forgo sleep in order to write out just one more publicity release.  And it still exists in them.  It is the impetus for them uneasily taking on the challenge of rules, organization, and corporate think as a tool.

That thing lurking is a reality that someone, somewhere, is in need and that they, in order to be what they desperately want to be, need to help them.  It is a truth so base that it exposes the falseness of the things we describe as our reality.  It is knowing that if they fail, if ActiveWater ceases to exist, real people are affected.

Daren just unveiled the next in his growing list of extreme endurance challenges to raise money and awareness of the water crisis.  He’s walked the U.S.  He’s starte and expedition to walk the world (which is halfway through Australia).  He’s done countless marathons, ironmans, and the like.  He has contiguously swam Lake Michigan.  Now he plans to run across the United States in 45 days starting on January 1st, 2014.  That is back to back marathons every day.

I asked him, “Daren, are you afraid that you are going to have to attempt to do more and more physically impossible challenges until, one day, you die during and attempt?”

He simply nodded yes.

But that won’t stop him because that’s what it takes right now to beat back that wild thing.  That is what it costs.

***

Daren and Amie’s office share something in common that I noticed while interviewing them.  Of all of the awards, medals, pictures, and banners they could choose, sitting directly across at eye level from their desks are similar pictures.  Daren has a picture of Zambian men surrounding a newly made well splashing each other with the water.  Amie has a picture of a solitary young Cambodian girl using a well pump.  In the photo she is looking out directly at Amie’s chair with large brown eyes.

I asked them both this question.  “What’s the first thing you think when you see that picture?”

They both responded nearly identically without hesitation and with passion.

“They have clean water.”

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