New Yorker Trades Lush Life for Water Wells

Correction appended

"The world would be better if more people lived like they were made to live." For Scott Harrison, that meant leaving the lavish life in the Big Apple and committing his life to the 1.1 billion people who don't have access to clean water.

After ditching his Christian faith at 18 years of age, Harrison "had been working at selfishness" for ten years, selling $350 bottles of vodka, promoting nightclubs and fashion events, and hanging out with beautiful people.

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"I sold escapism and excess for a living," Harrison told The Christian Post.

He should have been happy, he said, but he was instead confronted with how arrogant and selfish he had become.

Realizing he was spiritually bankrupt, Harrison began reading The Pursuit of God, by A.W. Tozer, and praying. As he put it, he was "drinking heavily and partying at night, but praying by day."

It wasn't until six months later that he decided to leave New York and dedicate a year of his life in service to God and the poor. He volunteered to serve as a photojournalist with Mercy Ships, a global charity that operates hospital ships in developing nations.

"I traded my spacious midtown loft for a 150-square-foot cabin with bunk beds, roommates and cockroaches," he recalled. "Fancy restaurants were replaced by a mess hall feeding 400+ Army style. A prince in New York, now I was living in close community with 350 others. I felt like a pauper."

The ship took him to Liberia where he faced a poverty and human suffering that he had thought unimaginable. There was no public electricity, no running water, no sewage, and no mail. Families had to walk miles to collect water – and dirty water at that – from ponds and puddles.

It's been three years now since Harrison started charity: water and already the non-profit has raised more than $10 million – every cent of which has gone to helping about 750,000 people in 16 countries get clean and safe water.

Charity: water, which has no religious affiliation, began with his 31st birthday in September 2006 when he gave up gifts for donations toward building water wells in Africa. Since then, hundreds of people have joined, giving up their birthdays each September.

This month, the non-profit is aiming to help 1 million people with access to clean water which requires about $2.5 million in donations. It's ambitious, Harrison acknowledges, but that's just his short-term goal. He doesn't plan to stop until every single person on the planet has clean and safe water to drink.

And he isn't doing this alone. Churches, schools, retailers, individuals and even some of his old clients who bought $350 bottles of Grey Goose are on his side.

"We're bottom-up not top down," Harrison explained to The Christian Post. "This problem can only be solved through the math of networks – not through $10 million foundation gifts but from 10 million $1 gifts."

Moreover, his 100 percent model (where all donations are directed to building water wells) has helped bring people disenchanted with charities back to the table. Donors are also shown what their giving translates to on the field. Meanwhile, they have a separate program where donors can help fund staff and operations.

"I wanted to reinvent charity," said Harrison, whose team recently moved to a bigger office space in New York.

They've grown 300 percent each year and keeping up with that has been a challenge.

Over these past few years, Harrison has seen incredible answers to prayer and his faith has really grown. Despite the thousands of lives he has helped impact, Harrison still keeps a humble attitude.

"I've ... learned that God doesn't need me to get clean water to people in need. I'm humbled and delighted that he's allowed me to be a part of this thing, but I am in no way indispensible," he told CP.

"Someday I am going to be accountable for everything I've said and done. I want that to go well," he said.

Until then, he tries to live by a verse in the New Testament book of James. "It says true religion is this: To look after widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep yourself from being polluted by the world."

On the Web:

Correction: Thursday, September 3, 2009:

An article on September 2, 2009, about charity: water and its founder, Scott Harrison, incorrectly reported that reaching 1 million people with access to clean drinking water requires $5 million. The Christian Post confirmed with Harrison that it requires only $2.5 million.

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