UA students combat one of the leading causes of human death and illness – contaminated drinking water.

By:    Date: 07-29-2017


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Not long after enrolling in a social entrepreneurship course at The University of Alabama, Maddie Addicks couldn’t stop thinking about a statistic she learned in the class: every 30 seconds, a child dies from a preventable, water-borne disease.

“When I first signed up, I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into,” says Addicks, a junior from Houston majoring in telecommunication/film and marketing. “Not only has it been the most impactful college class I have taken, but it has given me a new perspective on life. After hearing how people were dying from drinking contaminated water, I knew I had to help.”

Addicks launched an email campaign that raised more than $1,700 for Filter of Hope, a Tuscaloosa-based nonprofit that makes household water filters and works with partners to distribute them to impoverished families around the world. Addicks’ efforts provided 43 water filters that can produce clean water for 260 people for 10 years.

The UH 120 Social Entrepreneurship course introduces students to social entrepreneurship and its obstacles and successes and challenges students to create their own projects aimed at addressing worldwide problems. Don Johnson, director of partnerships for Filter of Hope, teaches the course, and many students develop campaigns that support the organization’s mission.

Filter of Hope volunteers teach families how to use and maintain their water filters. ABOVE: UA student Maddie Addicks, who raised funds for 43 water filters through an e-mail campaign.

Since Fall 2015, approximately 150 UA students have contributed to Filter of Hope through the class, awareness and fundraising campaigns and events, internships and trips to distribute filters in countries including Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. UA students have raised approximately $21,000 for water filters, giving 4,200 people access to 288 million gallons of clean water over 10 years.

Johnson says Filter of Hope staff have been amazed by the efforts of UA students. “They display tremendous energy, creativity and compassion for those who are so desperate without the basics of clean water,” he says.

Each $40 filter lasts 10 years, operates without electricity or batteries and can clean 150 gallons of water per day, enough for six people. Students often demonstrate the filters during presentations and events.

“Most people in America use more water in their morning shower than people in other countries have in a day,” says Alexandra Hart, a social work graduate student from Andalusia, Ala., who completed a Filter of Hope internship in Spring 2016 and traveled to Haiti to distribute filters in July of 2016. “Clean water is almost a foreign concept to us as Americans because it is expected here.”

Hart raised more than $6,000 – providing more than 150 families with clean water – by making presentations at a church and middle school in her home town. “I think a lot of times people want to help, they just aren’t aware of how,” she says. “I shared the facts of the global water crisis and told people what they could do to help stop it.”

Some of those facts: One out of seven people lack access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization, and approximately 1.5 million people die each year from water-borne illnesses – a leading cause of human sickness and death.

A Haitian family with their new water filter. Children without access to safe drinking water often miss school due to stomach illnesses.

The consequences of contaminated drinking water reach even further. Filter of Hope founder Bart Smelley says breaking the poverty cycle in developing countries – his initial goal –isn’t possible when families are chronically sick from drinking contaminated water.

“Many children grow up with stomach illnesses and just grow accustomed to the pain and dehydration that comes with that,” says Will Miller, a full-time missionary in the Dominican Republic who partners with Filter of Hope and UA students to distribute water filters. “This affects their school attendance and pursuit of education; it affects their growth and development.”

Miller relays the story of a single mother of five children, ages 5 to 12: “For more than a decade, she had been nursing a sick child every single day. For the last six months, since she received the filter from a college group, all her children have been healthy and have had near perfect attendance in school. Health benefits aside, these kids are finally getting an education.”

When UA students travel to other countries to help distribute water filters, they typically go into families’ homes and, through an interpreter, explain how the filters work, how to install them on 5-gallon buckets and how to clean and maintain them. Filter of Hope’s partnership network supplies replacement parts, if needed. “We aren’t just taking these filters and saying, ‘hope it works, but if it doesn’t we can’t help you anymore,’” Hart says.

A child catches drinking water from a building roof during a rain shower.

Even though she knew the situation, Hart says she was startled when a little boy who had been tagging along with her group as they distributed filters in a Haitian village ran away as rain began falling and reappeared with a jug, using it to catch water from a roof. “That was an intense moment for me,” she says. “I can literally turn on a faucet at any minute and have access to clean water, and this small child is catching water off a roof. His family will use this water to drink or cook with.”

Hart says her experiences in Haiti and with the Filter of Hope internship taught her skills she’ll need as a social worker. “I learned how to go into another culture and environment and ask if I could help without being threatening or belittling,” she says. “I learned to empower people by giving them a tool so they could meet their own needs without feeling like their independence had been taken away. I also learned how to advocate for people who cannot advocate for themselves, which is another huge component of social work.”

Johnson says both the social entrepreneurship class and work with Filter of Hope offer lessons about teamwork, communication, funding and leadership that translate into any profession.

“Wanting to get into the business world, I learned it is crucial to stay organized when working on a project, especially when it involves raising money and managing contacts,” Addicks says. “Through this project, I was able to gain firsthand experience promoting an organization I was passionate about to individuals who had never heard of it.”

To learn more about UH 120 Social Entrepreneurship or Filter of Hope, contact Don Johnson at