How an 11-year-old Canadian boy became the hero of an African village.
When six-year-old Ryan Hreljac learned at school that there are many children in Africa without clean drinking water, he decided to help. Ryan, who lives in a small town near Ottawa, in Canada, was told by his teacher that CDN$70 is all it costs to dig a well. So he asked his parents for $70. Ryan’s mother, Susan, put him to work vacuuming and washing the windows, and after four months he had earned the money. Ryan: ‘When I brought the money to Watercan – the organisation that digs the wells – its director told me that $70 was enough to buy a hand pump, but not enough to dig a well. That took $2,000. So I had to make more money.’ Luckily, the Canadian International Development Agency was prepared to provide half of the sum. Ryan went to work with heightened zeal, and this time his buddies joined in. Ryan: ‘My friend Spencer donated all his report card money, and Jeff turned up with all the loose money he could spare.’
Once the money had been raised, Watercan asked Ryan to choose the well’s location. Ryan wanted it to be near a school, and decided on the village of Angolo, in northern Uganda. As they talked, it became clear to Ryan that they would have to dig the well by hand. If, however, mobile drilling equipment were used, everything would go much faster. But that was going to cost $25,000. Ryan had a new goal: ‘Those mobile installations would make it possible to supply everyone in Africa with clean water.’ Susan pitched in. The Ottawa Citizen printed an article about Ryan’s well. In no time at all, Ryan was on TV and articles in other newspapers followed. The money started coming in as well. A neighbour, impressed by the job Ryan was doing, donated all his Air Miles. The Ottawa Citizen called for more people to follow suit, and Watercan also made a donation. In July, 2000, Ryan and his parents arrived in Angolo. Ryan could not believe his eyes when he saw the 5,000 children lined up along the way. ‘They all yelled “Ryan, Ryan, Ryan”. They knew my name!’
Ryan’s original $70 have now grown to over $750,000, which is managed by the Ryan’s Well Foundation. Ryan: ‘I am its Director and President. Fortunately I don’t do that by myself, there is a lot of help. Some five or six-year-old children send me small change. But the other day, a man called from Dubai, and told me he worked for an oil company. He said: “By the way, I have sent you a cheque for $5,000.” I think five cents from a girl in Florida is worth as much as those $5,000 from the man in Dubai.’ Ryan’s Well Foundation has now dug wells in several African countries, including Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
Susan: ‘Ryan still does not realise who these people are he is in touch with: from the Dutch Prince Willem-Alexander to UN Chairman Kofi Anan. Only the other day, he was talking on the phone with one UNICEF’s top guns. The man said, “Ryan, I’ll call you back later, I just got off the plane, it’s been a busy day and I’m bushed.” To which Ryan replied: “You think you’re tired? Do you know what I did today? I took a math test and did my geography and history homework!” When Ryan travels, he takes piles of homework along with him. Susan: ‘The school is very co-operative. And Ryan manages to do his homework in airports and hotel lobbies. His grades even went up recently.’ Luckily, Ryan can even find time to play ice hockey, basketball and to go swimming. Ryan: ‘My greatest challenge is to still be a kid. And in that department I’m doing just fine.’