Seth was a 19-year-old acting student in Los Angeles when a brief meeting with a friend who’d just returned from Africa changed the course of his life forever. Upon learning that almost one billion people lack access to clean water and that water-borne illnesses account for more than 80% of all global disease, he gave up acting to focus on water education. The Thirst Project is a movement of young people who are raising awareness around and bringing solutions to the global water crisis. Combining outreach and water well implementation, The Thirst Project has completed 392 freshwater development projects across the globe and reached 200,000 American students with its eye-opening educational programs.
We asked Seth some more questions about how he makes a difference and what he hopes to accomplish in the future.
DoSomething.org: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?
Seth Maxwell: I was absolutely shocked. I couldn’t believe that one in every eight people on our planet does not have access to safe, clean water. I lived in my own little world, totally consumed with myself. It took my photojournalist friend showing me photos of people who she’d befriended and watched die of dysentery, or diarrhea to shock me into reality. I felt hopeless at first when I looked at how huge the issue was, but then I felt resolved to help as many people as possible.
DS: How do you feel about it now?
SM: I feel inspired every day by the progress we are making. I have people I consider dear friends in each of the countries that we are working, and seeing the impact that water has made in their lives is absolutely incredible. I am blown away by all of the amazing students across the country who have joined us and declared that water is a human right!
DS: What person or experience sticks with you from when you first started your project?
SM: A high school girl named Mignotae Kebede. After my friends and I passed out water on Hollywood Boulevard to raise awareness, Mignotae was one of the first people who reached out to me to asking me to come to her school to speak about the global water crisis. She was born in Ethiopia and moved to Orange County when she started school. She played a really instrumental role in developing The Thirst Project at her high school and showing us just how much potential the School Tours really could have. It was amazing to be able to see one of our first wells ever be built in Mignotae’s country.
DS: Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?
SM: Few people have ever inspired me like Juliet. I first met her in Swaziland in August of 2010. She had just lost her husband and three sons to AIDS, and she is also infected. In August, the only water source Juliet had access to was a creek about half of a football field away from her homestead. The stream was open, visibly contaminated, and shared with goats, cattle, and all manner of insects. Each day, Juliet would haul bucketful after bucketful of dirty water and carry it the long distance back to her home. Despite having HIV and no familial support, Juliet also cares for EIGHT orphaned children from her community. She is an epic human being. Seeing the impact that water has had on her and the children she cares for is more than enough reason for me to fight every day for the work that we do.
DS: Can you describe the moment you knew that you were actually making a difference?
SM: I first knew I was making a difference when we hit the end of our first month of School Tours. I never in my life expected the first schools we reached to raise over $12,000. When they gave us the money and said, “Go build wells,” I was stunned. I had no idea what kind of power we actually had that went untapped in schools.
DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? When you were growing it?
SM: The most difficult roadblock I faced when I started my project was the challenge of figuring out how to grow the project so that I could give it the attention it needed, but also eat my next meal. There was about a 9-month period in 2009 right after I made the choice to devote myself to this full-time where I literally had to move to Chino, CA to live on my friend’s couch because I just hadn’t built up the support of our board or other contributors to be able to meet my own needs. I wanted to be committed to giving 100% of our public gifts directly to building wells, and it was a challenging and emotional process to find the right people who would help us grow the administrative side of our organization before I could move back to L.A. to take care of myself.
DS: What’s been the biggest lesson through the process?
SM: It is critical to surround yourself with the right people—people who are great at what you are not, who can partner with you, who can grow the org with you. Everything is all about people.
DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?
SM: I’ve been most surprised by how quickly students respond. I can pitch how important our work is to adults, and there’s often a disconnect between their hearing and acting because they have too many responsibilities, or any number of other excuses. With students, once they learn that someone is hurting, action is almost immediate. It is truly stunning.
DS: What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?
SM: Get as many of your friends together as possible and cast the vision for what you want to do. Tell the story of the project you want to address and do it in a way that gets people to see how it is absolutely unthinkable that you would allow another second to go by without doing something about your cause. You can’t go it alone. Get an amazing team together and not only will getting your idea off the ground be easier, but your project will be so much more enjoyable with great friends helping you along the way.
DS: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be and why?
SM: I would have gathered more creative people around me in the digital and web world much sooner. I realized how important storytelling was in communicating the need to schools and students and donors, but we didn’t have as strong as platform online as I’d like to create a destination for schools and students to give, interact, and see progress. We’re working on this now with some amazing people, but I can only imagine how much farther we would be if we had placed even more of a priority on that. Storytelling in the digital world is critical.
DS: What’s next for your project?
SM: This coming school year’s Tour is going to be INSANE! For the first time ever, we are giving it a theme. Our creative team has been working like crazy and it is going to be AMAZING. We will still challenge schools to their own individual fundraisers, but for the first time ever, at the end of the school year, we will unite all of our schools across the country and host a nationwide event for our generation to make a huge public awareness statement about the water crisis. I can’t give you too many details, but I can honestly say I have never been more excited about anything we’ve done. If we pull it off well, this will be the biggest thing The Thirst Project has ever done.
BONUS QUESTION: If you could have any celebrity film a PSA for you, who would it be and why?
SM: Tina Fey is HYSTERICAL and every age group loves her. She is rad and her voice is powerful!