An innocent conversation about “Idol Gives Back,” a charitable campaign by the TV show “American Idol” to fund malaria nets in Africa, sparked a life-changing decision for Justin Ahrens.
“My daughter asked, ‘What is malaria, and why does Africa have so much difficulty?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know,’ ” said Ahrens, 41, a Batavia father of four. “So I started researching it.”
As he researched, Ahrens commented to a friend that he believed he was supposed to do something more with his life and through his company, Rule 29, a strategic creative firm in Geneva. And he knew that it had to do with Africa.
The friend urged him to speak to his son, who was working on a project to bring clean water to Ethiopia.
“It was the greatest sales pitch ever,” Ahrens said. “He said, ‘I can’t accept your handout – only if you agree to go with me.’ Not a day goes by that I don’t think about one of the kids that I met. I needed that.”
That was six years ago, and since then, Ahrens has been to Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan through Lifewater, a charity devoted to sponsoring clean water projects. He has filmed two documentaries, “This is My Home” and “This is My Normal.”
Now, he and a friend are going to ride bikes 1,000 miles from Boston to Chicago from May 30 to June 13 next year, hoping sponsors will pay $40 a mile to raise $40,000 for another clean water project in Uganda.
He launched a separate charity, Wheels4Water, to facilitate raising the money. For information, visit http://rule29.com/2013/09/uganda-lifewater-and-wheels4water.
As if riding bikes 100 miles a day for 12 days is not strenuous enough, Ahrens said they will not buy water on the way. Instead, he said they will filter their drinking water on various stops and use the opportunity to reach out and raise awareness for the critical clean water needs elsewhere in the world.
“When I went to Uganda for the first time, and saw these water programs that really work – they are amazing,” Ahrens said. “When we were there, we went to old watering holes [that] were muddy and dirty and farm animals were doing their thing in it. And this is what they use to bathe, cook and drink – everything in that water.”
The program not only creates a clean water source by digging a well, it educates people on hygiene and how to maintain the well, he said.
Ahrens said he focuses on a quote from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to inspire his mission: “We shall not finally defeat AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria or any of the other infectious diseases that plague the developing world until we have also won the battle for safe drinking water, sanitation and basic health care.”
Donations may be made at the Wheels4Water website, http://wheels4water.org or mailed to Lifewater, Box 3131, San Luis Obispo, CA 93403.
“When I came back from Africa the first time, I had a hard time grappling with my normal versus their normal,” Ahrens said. “I just felt that I couldn’t not do something. I couldn’t ignore it. I decided I wanted to live my days more purposefully and more gratefully – and to see how we can do that both at work and at home.”