” Why It’s all worth it.” with Penny Bauder & James Leitner

It’s all worth it. With all of the ups and downs, emotional highs and lows, sleepless nights, and mental exhaustion, once you see your work benefiting someone or a community, it will all feel worth it. My team and I worked endlessly to complete our first clean water project. I had the opportunity to see it […]

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It’s all worth it. With all of the ups and downs, emotional highs and lows, sleepless nights, and mental exhaustion, once you see your work benefiting someone or a community, it will all feel worth it. My team and I worked endlessly to complete our first clean water project. I had the opportunity to see it be completed. It was not until I saw clean water flow from the taps, and not until I saw the community managing the system on their own, that I felt overwhelmed with emotion and teary eyed with happiness. Not only will your work benefit your current target community, but it will have an everlasting impact on their future and for future beneficiaries. You created that, and you should be proud of yourself.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Leitner, Founder of MissionCleanWater.

When James Leitner learned that over 1 billion people do not have access to clean water, he knew he knew he had to take action. In response, James founded MissionCleanWater at just 24 years old to address a dire need for sustainable, community-driven clean water initiatives in rural Uganda.

An entrepreneur and endurance athlete, James kick started his fundraising for MissionCleanWater with a symbolic challenge. To raise money and awareness, James walked the entire continental US, over 3,250 miles from New Jersey to California, while pulling 10 gallons of water to symbolize how far women and girls walk each year fetching water for their families.

Since 2018, James has funded and implemented clean water systems that have helped 3,000 people and 1,500 students gain access to drinking water, cutting their average walk to find water from 3 hours to 15 minutes. With every project, MissionCleanWater focuses on sustainability, working closely with each community to develop solutions together through relationship building, training, and long term investment.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, James has been working closely with Ugandan Government health officials to develop a hygiene response plan that provides handwashing stations and COVID prevention literature to MCW’s partner communities. Recognizing that access to clean water is more important now than ever, James is currently preparing for his next endurance fundraiser: 30 Days for Clean Water. During the month of July 2020, he will run 30 miles per day for 30 days to raise $30,000 for a clean water and hygiene solution for the St. Elizabeth’s All-Girls School in rural Uganda.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Ofcourse! My name is James Leitner and I currently live and grew up in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. To me, my hometown is a very stereotypical NYC commuter town. My parents and a majority of my friends’ parents would set 5:00am alarms to make the train into the city and come back around 7:30pm. I only know these exact times because once I got my drivers license, I was dropping off and picking up my mom every day from the train. My town has a big tradition in soccer, more kids try out for varsity soccer than varsity football so I grew up playing soccer for a majority of my life. For the longest time, I thought the natural path to life was to go to college, major in finance, and go work in the city. Now there is nothing wrong with this, but if it was not for a few special friends, teachers, and relatives, I never would have found my love for the outdoors and never would have developed a passion to help people without clean water. My junior year of high school (2009–2010), I learned that a billion people in the world didn’t have clean water to drink and that changed everything for me. I went to University of Delaware to continue learning about water and sanitation issues.

You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

MissionCleanWater is a social impact organization working to bring clean water and sanitation to underserved communities. People without access to water are walking for hours every day, often for many miles, to find water for their family that might not be clean. This is likely to make someone in their family sick and a whole day is missed while walking to collect dirty water. Our focus is to work closely with each community, at the grassroots level, to develop a plan together that creates the best solution for them.

Now, clean water is not a new topic and people have been working towards helping those without clean water for many years. But, unfortunately, many clean water projects fail within their first year. In fact, according to UNICEF, 30–50% of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects fail after just two to five years. This can often leave communities worse off than before. By working closely with every community, we can ensure each project is developed with long term sustainability in mind.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

The passion came to me in an experimental history class my junior year of high school (09–10). Our junior history class was the first time they were teaching “Global Perspectives” instead of just US or European history. We had a paper as part of our final for that class and the question to answer was “Why is this a global issue: Food, Water, and Energy. Pick One.” At the time, I knew a decent amount about food and energy so I decided to pick water as my topic. I started my research and learned that at the time, one billion people did not have access to clean drinking water. I was blown away by that fact because I never thought of water as an issue before. It is so easily available in New Jersey, why is there not clean water available everywhere? It felt like my entire world view changed, I had tunnel vision on this one issue and nothing could break my concentration on this topic. It was all I thought about. I wanted to become involved with water based nonprofits, I started hosting fundraisers, I narrowed down my potential college options based on their research on global water issues. It felt like I couldn’t stop this pursuit until I knew everyone had clean water.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

When I learned that people didn’t have clean drinking water, I never questioned any of my decisions to pursue that interest. My “Aha Moment” was the discovery of the issue. As I continued to become involved in the clean water and international development sector, I learned about all of these projects failing. These failed projects sat as landmarks of broken promises as community members resorted back to old dirty water sources. My second “Aha Moment” was deciding to establish MissionCleanWater as a 501c3 nonprofit organization, regardless of the challenges it would put in front of me.

Many nonprofits start because they have backing from someone famous, existing support from the private sector, or as a part-time project. But I saw the immediate need for intervention in the WASH sector and started working on MissionCleanWater full-time, without funding or other support. This decision has had some serious implications for my lifestyle. I have moved around alot (NJ rent is the same as NYC rent), slept outside many nights, and eat very simply, all so that I can continue to dedicate my time and energy to MCW. Despite these inconveniences, I am so incredibly happy to see how many people we have helped. I don’t regret anything.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

There are many steps to developing a new organization and here are the major ones I took to get to where I currently am. The first step I took was accepting the fact that I am not an expert in everything. Developing a new organization involves business planning, marketing, project development, etc. This all might seem overwhelming, but don’t forget you are developing your passion and people love seeing that. Once I accepted that I am not a pro in everything, I began meeting with different people, companies, nonprofits, professional committees to learn as much as I could and see if other people were willing to be a part of my team and help me develop MissionCleanWater.

With a team assembled of other passionate individuals, we were able to begin developing our mission and building our organization. Together, as a team, we set goals, established standards of accountability, and took the steps necessary to begin helping.

The next major step I took happened about a year after we became a nonprofit organization. I took a break. When developing your passion, it’s easy to forget to think about your mental health. You become so involved in developing your passion that you don’t even realize you are working 100+ hours a week and sleeping less than 4 hours a day. I isolated myself from the people I cared about, my friends and family in pursuit of my passion. I spent a few days rekindling those relationships and reevaluating my mental health. Ultimately, taking some time off helped me think more clearly and allowed me to become a better leader for MissionCleanWater.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Oh fun! I love storytelling. There are many many amazing stories from so many of my adventures and trips to Uganda, but here are some of the best ones.

1. I use ultramarathons as a way of completing symbolic fundraisers for MissionCleanWater. We were hosting a nationwide Virtual Run in the Fall of 2019 and I wanted to go all out and run 100 miles in 24 hours. I did it all at a local park that had a .8 mile loop meaning I had to do 132 laps. I also set the goal of starting at midnight and carrying 45lbs of water for 15 of those laps representing the 1,500 people that would have access to clean water because of this fundraiser. I started my run thinking I was going to have no support and very few people were going to come help me. When running so far, your mind plays tricks on you and having someone with you helps you stay focused. Well, 6:00am came around and as I was finishing a loop, I saw a lady wearing a neon green vest waving to me. She asks if I am James and she tells me that she is here to run with me for the next hour. I have never felt so full of joy before. She shared that the Union County chapter of Moms Run This Town heard about my run and created a timechart to make sure I never had to run alone from this moment forward. From 6:00am until I finished at 8:24pm, there were always 1–3 moms running with me sharing tons of stories. If it was not for them, I probably never would have finished.

2. I was doing a presentation at an elementary school to a bunch of 3rd graders. A little girl comes up to me at the end of the presentation, does not say a word to me, just hands me a small piece of paper, and walks away. I unfold the piece of paper to reveal a Water Kitty, she drew a cat’s face out of a water droplet and she wrote “Yeahhh Water Kitty!” I had that little drawing in my wallet for 7 years before losing my wallet.

3. Interesting can also be simple. Every day while in Uganda, I make an effort to sit outside during the sunset or at night for a few minutes. I live in New Jersey surrounded by street lights, noise, and the hustle and bustle attitude of NYC. In Uganda, I get the time to look around. The geography where we work is much more flat, so the sunset always has this big 180 degree view that lights the entire sky red. At night, you can look at the stars forever. It gives me the chance to think how cool it is that I am across the globe, pursuing a passion that has been developing for so long. We did it.

4. I do not consider myself a particularly gifted or smart person. School did not come easy to me. I had to study for hours and seek help to get As, and I am damn proud of it. In high school, applying to any Ivy League or 90th percentile school was out of the question. Flash forward to the Spring of 2019, I am presenting at the Wharton School of Business about project sustainability. At the end of my presentation, as I walked to my car, I couldn’t help but cry because of how happy I felt.

5. My first major endurance fundraiser for MissionCleanWater was a cross country walk. I walked the entire continental US, over 3,250 miles from New Jersey to California, while pulling 10 gallons of water to symbolize how far women and girls walk each year fetching water for their families. During my cross country walk, I got caught in a hail storm, walked across the desert, and was attacked by a dog. Let me know if you want me to elaborate on the cross country stories because that trip itself is a story. When I publicly speak, it is usually always about this.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I have made many mistakes and will share with you two stories:

1. To visit the communities where we work, it is often a 10–30 minute drive down rural dirt roads to get there. It also rains very heavily every day for a few months in a row during the rainy season. My project partner and I switch off who is driving since we are often traveling for long periods of time. As I was driving, I came to a crossroad and had two roads to pick. It just rained and both roads were extremely muddy. My project partner, who is Ugandan and drives more often than me, told me to take the long road but I decided to take the other road, despite him reassuring me that we are going to get stuck. I took the short way and as I was hydroplaning over mud, I looked over at my project partner who had the “I told you so” expression on his face. Of course, just as he predicted, we got stuck and it is now up to me to get in the ankle high mud and push the car out of the mud. We did finally get the car out of the mud, but for the rest of the entire day, I was covered in it, pretty much head to toe. Next time, I listened to my project partner. Like I said, I’m not an expert in everything, especially not muddy, rural Ugandan roads.

2. I made the mistake of not not closing my door during a Zoom call and my parents’ dog ran and jumped on my lap. He is a big dog and I was in a bad chair. He knocked my right onto the ground. Sorry, fellow Zoomers.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

There have been many people through the current history of MissionCleanWater to mentor us and cheer us on. Our first early mentor was a wonderful person named Sarah Evans. She is the founder of Well Aware, a similar nonprofit working to bring clean drinking water to communities who have none. She helped me develop MissionCleanWater into a nonprofit, and showed me the importance of collaboration over competition. She helped me assemble my clean water team and criteria for sustainable development.

My next mentor is a great man named Timothy Priano. He is someone that tells it how it is and always speaks his mind. He taught me how to seek investors, how to get your foot in the door, and how to talk to people. He has connected me to a wide network of supporters that I otherwise would not have known. He started his work as a young entrepreneur, saw the passion in me, and took the time to teach me a few things.

My cheerleaders are my family and friends. My friends are always reaching out to see how things are going and to offer any type of help that they can. My family is always there to provide emotional and business support, but also to tell me when I am making mistakes or need a new approach. Especially my mom.

Another two key individuals that have been a huge help and really kept the momentum going forward are Yung Wong and Michael Korlander.

One of the first people to really help me is my good friend and board member, Yung Wong. We met in 2013 at a Clinton Global Initiative conference in St. Louis and have maintained contact ever since then. He is a renewable energy and water quality expert. Flash forward to 2016, 3 years later, I am about to finish organizing my efforts for my cross country trip and I get a message from Yung telling me to come to NJ and share what I am doing with the company he works for, World Water and Solar Technologies. Since that moment, it has opened many doors for me to gain support during my cross country walk, help find water experts to build our technical capabilities, and really develop a framework that provides sustainable clean water.

I met Michael Kortlander at 4:00am on a Sunday on the side of a highway about an hour south from San Francisco. After walking for 143 days across the United States, I received an email from a random marketing company out of Austin, TX asking to meet me but only if I followed these very specific instructions. They were willing to pay for my uber, so I was all for it to meet this random group at 4:00am on the side of the highway. At 4:00am, after waiting outside in the dark for 20 minutes, a black SUV pulls up where I meet Michael and Ashley who are part of some film crew. They bring me to where the entire crew is waiting. There, I learn UPS is making a video about my trip and Michael Kortlander is the director for the video. During that time, I had the chance to get to know him well and we have been working together ever since.

Michael has come with me to Uganda twice to learn more about the projects and offer his photography and filming expertise to get new updated material. He has connected me to people with more fundraising and marketing experience to help rebrand the organization. A few times a week, we talk to discuss how MissionCleanWater is moving forward and how we can help each other.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Currently, 4,500 people have access to clean water from our completed projects. To really see these projects be built to last multiple generations, we spend weeks with the community, discussing plans and developing procedures to ensure the entire community can have universal access to clean water. During this time, we have had the opportunity to get to know a lot of community members. One of the people we got to know well during one of our recent trips is Benna.

Benna is a 10 year old girl from the Agirigiroi community in Uganda. Before we met the Agirigiroi community, her entire life was focused on water. She was in charge of getting water for her family and every day she walked miles to and from the nearest water source. Her journey to collect water took so long that she had to drop out of school just to find water.

When we first visited Agirigiroi, we had the chance to walk with her to find water. She collects water from a 8 ft deep hand dug well that she has to climb into while holding on to the roots of nearby trees. If she slips, she cannot swim and the bottom of the well is very silty, meaning she would get stuck in the mud and be unable to get out.

After seeing her journey, we worked with her community to develop a solution and the impact has been incredible to see. Benna’s walk to collect water decreased from 3 hours to 15 minutes, giving her time to quickly get water in the morning and then head to school. The water she collects is no longer full of waterborne disease, which used to make her and her family sick. Now, it is clean and fresh. Her family has the ability to use the clean water for agricultural purposes, giving her family a new source of income and paying Benna’s school fees. Her life is no longer focused on collecting water. Now, she focuses on doing well in school and living a happy and healthy life — just like all 10 year old girls should.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Think about how important water is. We do not think of how important water is until it is taken away from us. Without clean and healthy water, we wouldn’t be able to live a normal life and we would always be fighting off disease. If we start with the mentality of not taking things for granted, we will be able to focus on making sure everyone can have a basic human right, water. Imagine each day you wasted tons of energy walking 5 miles to collect dirty water.
  2. Address how you are using water. As the months get hotter and the climate changes, the water certain people have will shift and change. Think about how you are using your water resources because it can drastically affect you and your community. Capetown, South Africa, a big urban city recently ran out of water and people could only use 5 gallons of water a day. How would your life change if you could only use 5 gallons of water?
  3. Take action as a community. There are many things communities can do to preserve their water resources. Our resources are protected, now let’s make sure everyone can have clean water.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

You are going to face a lot of bumps in the road. If everything was easy, more people would do it. But you are pursuing a passion and took the first step into unknown territory, accepted a lot of risk, and did something very few people will do. There are going to be a lot of challenges, but you will find ways to pick yourself up. A good example is when I set fundraising goals for different events or recruit participants for events. I will talk to hundreds of businesses to only get a few interested in participating, or I will present in front of 100s of people to only get a few people to donate or sign up to volunteer afterwards. After all of those negative responses, it feels very easy to give up, your spirit is shattered. But once you find the answer or get the yes, it will all be worth it.

There are going to be issues that occur that you can not plan for or expect. We all seek experts for advice, research different examples of similar work, and develop procedures to plan for success. But with all of this, there are going to be those few challenges you did not expect to occur that put everything on hold. A simple example was during our first project, when we didn’t have the right size pipe to complete our well. We went back to town to find the right size part but, astonishingly, the entire city didn’t have that size. We had to wait a week for the right size to be shipped from Kenya.

Another more socially focused example was during some educational sessions our team led to learn about how communities thought of water and the issues around it. We broke the classes into age and gender demographics to get different details. When talking to the children, they never thought of clean water and thought their normal walk to get water was just part of life. They had no idea other options were possible until after our educational classes. When our project started, some children didn’t use our project because they didn’t know they could since it was not already part of their everyday life. After some convincing, they started using the clean water sources and saw their quality of life improve with having to spend time and energy walking so far for water.

It’s all worth it. With all of the ups and downs, emotional highs and lows, sleepless nights, and mental exhaustion, once you see your work benefiting someone or a community, it will all feel worth it. My team and I worked endlessly to complete our first clean water project. I had the opportunity to see it be completed. It was not until I saw clean water flow from the taps, and not until I saw the community managing the system on their own, that I felt overwhelmed with emotion and teary eyed with happiness. Not only will your work benefit your current target community, but it will have an everlasting impact on their future and for future beneficiaries. You created that, and you should be proud of yourself.

It’s okay to breathe. Make sure to take the time to see your friends, see your family, and talk to new people, or your passion will take over your life. I worked 12 hours days for 7 days a week for about a year and a half in pursuit of MissionCleanWater, while working a small part-time job at a climbing gym so I wasn’t fully homeless. At my part time job, I knew everyone well that came to the climbing facility. It was not until a customer and good friend sat me down and told me to take a break that I realized how much MissionCleanWater had taken over my life. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but when I started walking to my car after closing up, I realized how much that small act of kindness and concern for my well being actually meant to me.

Be Open and Honest with Yourself. Be open to talk to new people, meet everyone that you can, and don’t be afraid to be wrong. By talking to other people and building your network of leaders, you will find new ways to tackle issues. I was working on developing a new website for MissionCleanWater which does involve a fair amount of coding, which I have zero experience in. I was teaching myself and making good progress until I ran into a simple issue that I could not find the answer for. Stumped, I posted on social media to see if anyone could help and quickly received a dozen offers. Each person offered their own level of constructive criticism that has helped us develop a better website, videos, and photography. All of these 12 people stay involved today as our Creative team making sure we are always creating new and engaging content to share our story.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

The journey seems challenging, but every accomplishment will be so rewarding. Go for it and never be afraid to explore the impact you want to make. Talk to current professionals in that field and see how you can learn or volunteer your time to become a positive impact leader. Ask every question you have and challenge anything that seems scary to you. I want to see you succeed and will help you any way I can. Reach out to me, I will give you my cell phone number, and we will start helping you become a social impact leader. Always find new ways to move forward because I want to see you succeed, your friends want to see you succeed, and your parents want to see you succeed. Let’s do this together.

The journey is going to be similar to becoming an artist or professional athlete. You are going to constantly practice what you know and always be learning new material along the journey. Many mentors will guide you through your current level of knowledge and pass you on once you become a leader. You will make mistakes that might ruin a canvas or cause you to lose the game, but it is a learning experience. You figure out what went wrong and find a way to move past it. Always find new ways to move forward.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I am not going to lie, my answer is not going to be what you expect. You can’t tag them. To be completely honest, it is not someone famous, a leader in the nonprofit world, or a World Leader. It’s my Uncle Vince and Aunt Carol. They live out in Oregon in the summer and Arizona in the winter. And my uncle’s health is deteriorating. He had a stroke and has no control of the left side of his body. All the work I do, all the inspiration I have found in life, all the moments moving forward are for and because of Uncle Vince and Aunt Carol.

They showed me there is more joy in life than just living in suburban, middle class New Jersey. There are people to love and to help all around the world. There is beauty in other cultures, nature, and experiences. They both have had an incredible life. They have taken me on many camping trips in Colorado and Arizona and would share stories of their experiences all around the world. From experiencing revolutions, to mapping untouched land in Siberia, to becoming sick from eating too much chocolate in Europe. They have helped me discover that life is about doing good for people even when expecting nothing in return. They have turned me into a better person.

My uncle is in a wheelchair and my aunt is taking care of him. He is embarrassed to have me see him in that condition but I would do anything to have lunch with them. I’d fly cross country just for a meal, just for one hour to talk to them. I don’t care about what, I just want to let them know how important they have always been to me and what an inspiration they have been. I don’t care if I fly across the country just for a 5 minute interaction, I am scared I am not going to see him again. I do not make enough money to buy a plane ticket and see them, but hopefully as MissionCleanWater grows, it can become my full time paid position.

I need to be honest, this was one of the hardest things I have written. I did not expect to become so emotional. Here is another response that might be more fitting for tagging.

If I could meet this person, I wouldn’t want to have a meal with them, I would want to go surfing with them. I would love to meet Chris Pratt. If you are unsure of his backstory, he has an inspirational story of early rejection and determination that led him to an eventual success to starring in Parks and Recreation and Guardians of the Galaxy. We both have felt out of our element put into a new world where it seems like it is hard to get accepted. Hearing his early days in Hollywood reminds me of where I am now. Making strides forward to improve our work, holding small jobs for the next meal, and waiting for the big break. Through all the challenges, we can find the humor in the small moments and move our work forward. His work, lifestyle, and improvisational skills have always been something I found extremely impressive.

How can our readers follow you online?

The best way to stay in touch is through social media. We are on facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and update them daily. Our Facebook account is @MissionCleanWater while Instagram and Twitter are @MissionCleanH2o. You can alway learn more about our work on our website: www.missioncleanwater.org

And, if you are looking for ways to get involved, we’d love to have you join our upcoming 30 Days for Clean Water fundraiser. You can participate or raise funds from anywhere in the world! Join us: https://missioncleanwater.org/30miles

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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