How a former bartender found his life's work in dirty water.
Doc Hendley prefers bourbon neat when fixing himself a drink, but as a bartender, he makes a fine Bloody Mary. He’s also been known to ride a mile or 2,000 on his Harley-Davidson.
Growing up, that’s pretty much as good as Hendley, 33, thought it would get. He wanted a life with more meaning but couldn’t envision what form that would take. His siblings were superstars in athletics and academics. He was just average.
“I guess I just grew up with the mentality that everybody else can accomplish great things but, since I had not done anything before, I couldn’t,” he says.
Not so fast. One night in 2003 during holiday break from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Hendley was at that in-between point, not really asleep and not really awake.
“I had this almost audible voice in my head,” he says. “I heard the phrase ‘wine to water’ going over and over in my head.”
That woke him up.
| See Doc Hendley at IMEX America Next Month! |
Doc Hendley will be a keynote speaker at IMEX America in Las Vegas, October 9-11. His involvement is sponsored by Visit Myrtle Beach. To apply to be a hosted buyer (and attend the event for FREE) or get more information, visit www.imexamerica.com.
A songwriter—he worked his way through college by bartending and playing music at clubs—he grabbed pen and paper to jot the words down.
“I was thinking maybe that this is an inspiration for a really cool song,” he says. “As I was staring at the words on the page, I just got really knotted up inside like I was supposed to know something.”
He went downstairs to his parents’ computer and searched phrases like “water issues” and “water problems.” And started reading about the devastating effect of dirty drinking water on people around the world, about how 1.1 billion people worldwide don’t have access to clean drinking water.
“I remember looking at that number and thinking that Google must have somehow got it wrong,” Hendley says. “There are only 6 or 7 billion people in the world, and if over 1 billion people are drinking dirty water that is making them sick, then, my goodness, I was pretty sure I would have heard about it.”
But it was right. Devastatingly right. And it spurred Hendley to go places he’s never thought possible for himself.
Instead of “jotting down a cheesy country song” about wine to water, he spent the rest of that 2004 night conjuring up a plan for an organization called Wine to Water. Within a month-and-a-half, he’d thrown his first fundraiser using the resources he had at his fingertips: booze, good food, access to space and live music.
More fundraisers followed and the organization’s bank account grew.
“I just decided that I was going to give that money to an already established organization,” he says. “I figured, why reinvent the wheel?”
Hendley hooked up with Samaritan’s Purse, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that had a “phenomenal water program” and put 92 percent of all donations to work. He thought he’d donate the money through them, do some volunteering and continue on as he’d been doing. Instead, during his first meeting with the organization, one of the nonprofit’s big guns, Ken Isaacs, started asking Hendley about himself and why he had decided to do the fundraisers.
“I just told him the story, and how for the first time I really felt like my life had meaning,” Hendley says. “He said, ‘I’ve got a better idea. How about you come work for me? I’ll send you anywhere in the world you want to go. I’ll teach and train you how to do this work so when you come home you’ll have the tools necessary.’”
Six months after his first fundraiser, Hendley was on a plane to Darfur, Sudan. It was the height of the ongoing genocide there and Hendley was working in the middle of United Nations “No Go” zones, areas that most NGOs stay out of because of the danger. Hendley stayed in Darfur for a year “just living in the desert and learning how to do this work.”
And he was going up against one of the most brutal governments in history, a government that viewed Hendley as the enemy since he was trying to upend one of their favorite ways to terrorize and kill the population.
Over time, Hendley realized that instead of going into places and fixing wells that would, eventually, break down again (or get smashed to bits by the military), he had to help people learn to fix their own water supplies.
“After a while, we began to bring tool kits and teach and train the local guys how to maintain and fix their own wells so they wouldn’t have to rely on outside aid,” he says. “That is the way it clicked with me that it is much more beneficial to involve the locals in that work and to have them be the ones to do the work instead of [me] being out there doing it.”
When Hendley returned to the United States, in shock from all he had witnessed (including the assassination of one of his key team members) and dealing with the reverse culture shock of going from a land of nothing to a land of plenty, he pulled back from his Wine to Water work. He worked three jobs to scrape by but, the saving grace, met a woman he would marry one year later.
“Not long after we were married she really encouraged me, ‘Why don’t you keep going with this Wine to Water thing? Why don’t you finish what you started?’ And we became an official 501(c)(3) charity in 2007.”
In 2009, the organization’s profile was raised when Hendley was named one of CNN’s Heroes of the Year, for which more than 9,000 people from 120 countries were nominated. That led to an agent approaching Hendley to write a book about his story, Wine to Water: A Bartender’s Quest to Bring Clean Water to the World (released earlier this year).
Since 2007, Wine to Water has helped more than 100,000 people in 13 countries get ongoing access to clean water. They’ve drilled wells in Ethiopia, built a water filter factory in Haiti and installed water systems at an orphanage in Peru and a leper colony in India.
And Hendley continues to search for innovative ways to raise cash for the organization, including selling Wine to Water-branded vino with part of the proceeds feeding back into the water program. The newest addition to the Wine to Water stable is a corporate team-building program with a heavy social element. Wine to Water leads groups of people at events in building water filters that then get distributed to people in need. Each filter provides 250 gallons of clean water every day for at least 10 years.
Considering the organization’s humble bar beginnings, the number of people Hendley has been able to help is astonishing. But he still focuses on the individual stories.
On a recent trip to Cambodia, Hendley visited a woman who had been the recipient of a new well just one year earlier, after her husband had abandoned her and her five kids. She’d been left to beg for food to feed her children. The well changed everything.
“She was able to save a little money, because her kids aren’t sick all the time like they used to be,” he says. “Her family has been healthier, and she started using some of the water and diverted it to grow a garden near her home, and she started to grow her own food, so after she got the well she never had to beg for food again.”
Those stories—and there are tons—keep Hendley going: “I think about that one lady that got our help, or I think about that one child that is going to be able to see his or her fifth birthday now. That really is what keeps me excited and keeps me going and keeps me from getting discouraged [when thinking about the] masses that still are without.” One+
Doc Hendley has, justifiably, become a sought after speaker for meetings large and small (including the uber-popular TEDx series). His recommendation for spurring other people to take action instead of just saying oh, that’s nice that he does that?
“I learned that there are a lot of people that view themselves the same way I viewed myself for so long,” he says. “I was always just average, so what in the world can a guy like me do to change the world? All it took was something to be passionate about and get excited about and to look at what I did for someone else.
“You don’t have to go over to Africa to feel like you’ve made an impact in the world. I always tell people that in the beginning I never [planned] to have an international non-profit charity that saves millions of lives. I just wanted to do one event well. I shocked myself that I could and then I did another.”
One+ September 2012,