By Jenn Watt
Water Ambassadors Canada, founded by Haliburton residents Barry Hart and Heather Alloway, has established itself over the years as a charity that provides water and sanitation access to communities in need. Most of the time, that’s involved volunteers travelling to Central America, bringing supplies and doing much of the labour themselves. However, with the coronavirus pandemic posing safety and travel restrictions, the organization has recalibrated, leveraging its contacts and partnerships to continue helping without the need for travel.
“The fact is that we can’t travel … but what we’ve done is we have really strengthened our country partnerships with the folks that we were already working with,” said Brian Johns, who was hired as chief executive officer in July.
Water chlorinators were shipped to communities in Honduras, with the charity providing instruction to those on-site using messaging app WhatsApp. Handwashing stations and water filtration systems were set up in Uganda to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Personal protective equipment was delivered to a Honduras health clinic in need.
To ensure its work continued, though delivered differently, Water Ambassadors re-evaluated its operations and found ways to continue providing clean water and proper sanitation equipment to places that need it most, Johns explained.
“We have now scheduled out well drilling each month all the way to the end of the year  in Guatemala,” he said.
From July to October, 16 projects have been completed including wells drilled, chlorinators, water filters and handwashing stations.
“I know with confidence there are thousands of people that we have made an impact [on] because of the money that we have raised and the way that we have shifted our programming,” he said.
In Haliburton, Water Ambassadors Canada held the Fall Water Walk Oct. 4 and the annual golf tournament in July. Tens of thousands of dollars were raised from those initiatives.
While holding fundraisers was more challenging in 2020 due to physical distancing and gathering restrictions, Johns said it also offered the organization the opportunity to spread its focus and decentralize efforts.
“We were always doing the Toronto half-marathon [fundraiser], but what we did this time, and through a learning experience, is that we said OK let’s not make this Toronto-centric because the marathon’s not happening. Let’s have the Fall Water Walk and Ursula [Devolin] through her leadership, we were able to set up a framework where we would host all of the online giving, but break it off within communities. And so we had people doing a Fall Water Walk in Halifax, Newmarket, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo and what we said was, let’s have Haliburton be like the closing ceremonies for the Fall Water Walk.”
Johns said his arrival on the scene with Water Ambassadors was about the right circumstances at the right time – despite starting his job in the midst of a pandemic.
He had previously been involved with the organization in 2005, travelling to Guatemala as part of a well drilling team. “From the time that I went on the well drill trip to now, over these past 15 years, is very much something that I’ve carried with me and when the opportunity came up to apply for the position, I was very driven to do that,” he said.
(Johns’s first interaction with founder and board chair Barry Hart actually precedes his trip to Central America. Hart was his science and aviation teacher at Huron Heights Secondary School in Newmarket.)
“Brian is the right leader at the right time for Water Ambassadors Canada,” Hart said in a press release. “After an exhaustive national search over three months, Brian’s extensive leadership background in a results-driven approach, as well as focusing on continuous improvement is sure to benefit not only the development efforts that we undertake in North America, but globally with our in-country partners, on our mission to change lives with clean water.”
The charity has undergone a brand rebuild this year as well, which Johns said is similar to the steps Habitat for Humanity and Salvation Army took as their organizations grew.
Water Ambassadors Canada is a Christian ministry that welcomes volunteers and assists communities regardless of their faith, he said.
“All are welcome, period,” Johns said. “…Everybody’s included.”
With a third of all people in the world lacking access to clean water, there is never a shortage of work for Water Ambassadors and the CEO said the charity is never at a loss for new projects.
“The need that is out there is mind boggling,” he said. “There are tens of thousands of wells that could be repaired – not drilled but repaired -– that are sitting there that just simply need somebody to either come by and fix the mechanical side of it or that needs some kind of maintenance. There are hundreds of stories that we can share where wells have been sitting there for 10, 15, 20 years and people haven’t been able to get clean water and we are able to come by, repair the well and clean water flows again.”