Summit Keynote Speaker Leaves Corporate America To Promote Access to Healthy Food for Marginalized Communities

The keynote speaker for the 2014 National Environmental Summit for High School Students left her 20-year career in corporate America to help others.

One week after resigning, Robin Emmons began working to save the life of her homeless and mentally ill brother. She secured transitional housing, counseling and support services for him, but his physical health was compromised because his diet was full of canned and sugary foods, staples of the agency responsible for his care. Emmons began donating produce from her garden for her brother and the 30 or so other residents housed at the facility where he lived, and she saw a dramatic improvement in his physical health.

This was the catalyst that propelled her into her passion – working for social justice by championing access to healthy food for marginalized communities. Emmons dug up her entire backyard and sowed the seeds for the nonprofit organization, Sow Much Good.

As founder and executive director, she dedicates her time and talents to eliminating systemic barriers in the food system that disproportionately affect the working poor and underserved populations. She works to raise awareness about the inequities that exist through workshops, farm stands and speaking opportunities.

Emmons is a 2013 Top 10 CNN Hero who has been featured in local and national media for the organization’s work to alleviate nutritional starvation in low-income communities through gardening and micro-farming.

A Boston native, she lives in Huntersville, North Carolina, with her husband. 

Past Summit Speakers

Chad Pregracke Chad Pregracke is the President and Founder of Living Lands & Waters (LL&W), the world’s only “industrial strength” not-for-profit river cleanup organization.  Chad formed LL&W at the youthful age of 23, after spending his life growing up and working on the Mississippi River.  Early on, he became appalled by the amount of garbage in the river and decided that if no one else was going to do something about it, he would.

Over the last 15 years, he, his crew, and 70,000 volunteers have removed 7 million pounds of garbage out of our nation’s rivers.  He’s also broadened his mission to include a MillionTrees and an Adopt-A-River Mile Project, as well as a new floating classroom aboard a barge that he and his crew live on 7 months of the year, teaching students, educators and individual citizens about the value of our rivers and natural resources. 

Cleaning up the Mississippi River One Refrigerator, One Sink, One Tire at a Time

Seven million pounds of garbage – 961 refrigerators, 143 sinks, 67,000 tires, 3,700 55-gallon barrels, 63 messages in bottles and much, much more. That’s how much trash Chad Pregracke and his organization have dredged up from the Mississippi and 16 other major rivers over the past 15 years.

This dedicated river champion has been featured on CNN, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, ABC, CBS and NBC. He was awarded the Jefferson Award for Public Service, a prize that is considered the U.S. equivalent of the Nobel Prize for public service.

He was also cited as a Point of Light, a designation created by former President George H.W. Bush. Former President Jimmy Carter introduced him at the ceremony celebrating his accomplishments. (A video of the event can be seen on YouTube: Points of Light Institute Tribute – Chad Pregracke.)

Speaker at National Environmental Summit

Pregracke will talk about his passion to clean up the Mississippi and what it takes to make a difference in the world at the National Environmental Summit for High School Students in July at Catawba College.  A collaborative venture of the Center for the Environment at Catawba and Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, the summit is designed to help students from across the country learn how they can use their talents to effect positive change in the world.

Pregracke’s epic voyage into river clean-up started when he was 17 years old. He worked as a shell diver in the Mississippi River near his home in Hampton, Ill., to earn money for college. Returning home one evening in his boat, he saw a huge pile of barrels near yachts that were moored at a marina. “The barrels had been sitting there for 50-60 years, and I got sick of seeing it,” Pegracke says.

“I thought, ‘I can’t be the only one who doesn’t like seeing that. I want to change it.’”

That decision catapulted the teenager into his life’s work. Pregracke founded Living Lands & Waters, a non-profit environmental organization, in 1997. He now oversees an organization with 12 full-time staff, six work boats, four barges, two tugboats, a crane, a fleet of trucks and an annual operating budget of $1.6 million.

Over the 15 years, more than 70,000 volunteers have participated in 740 river clean-ups. The organization also plants trees and conducts educational workshops. “We will have given away or planted 500,000 trees by Earth Day this year,” he says.

Persistence Paid Off

It took Pregracke a long time to get government officials to listen to his concern about the Mississippi. “It took me four years of calling state officials for them basically to say, ‘Who are you, kid, and what problem are you talking about?’”

Initially he had no money to conduct his clean-ups.  Then one day he saw a NASCAR race and that gave him an idea. The NASCAR racers had sponsors, so he figured he would get sponsors, too.

He started calling places and finally found someone who would support his efforts. Now corporate sponsors like Alcoa, Anheuser-Busch, Cargill and many others fund the work of his organization. “I never set out to found an organization,” he says. “I just did what I had to do. It grew out of necessity.”

What has he learned from the experience? “Anything is possible, anything you set your mind to,” he says. “You just set big goals and work hard to achieve them.”

Because of Pregracke’s achievements, he has met presidents and rock stars and other well known people, but it hasn’t gone to his head. “I may get a lot of credit, but I know it’s not me that’s doing all this,” he says. “It’s 70,000 volunteers. I only accept awards and things like that on behalf of the people who make it happen. I’m just really fortunate.”

What does he hope the high school students at the summit will take away from his presentation? “Volunteering is important, especially at their age,” he says. “My deal is about taking action. If you see a problem, know you can do something about it. I think my story is a good example that we all do make a difference. It’s up to them how big a difference they want to make.

“I try to be upbeat,” he says. “The problem I’m working on is simply made by humans, but it can also be fixed by humans. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Q&A with Doc Hendley: CNN Hero Provides Clean Drinking Water for Third World Countries

Doc Hendley, one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes for 2009, spoke at the National Environmental Summit for High School Students July 20, 2012 at Catawba College. Hendley, 32, is the founder of an organization that has provided clean water to more than 50,000 people in 11 Third World countries since 2004. The five-day summit, “Redesigning Our Future,” will bring students from across the country to the Catawba campus for a multi-disciplinary program that will help the participants use their talents to help create innovative solutions to environmental challenges.  Scientists and engineers from Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) will join Catawba faculty as leaders of the summit, which is a joint venture of the college’s Center for the Environment and RMI.

Juanita Teschner, the Center’s director of communications, talked recently to Hendley about his work. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Q: What initially got you interested in clean drinking water in Third World countries?

A: In the very beginning, I had no idea about the world’s water crisis. I had no clue how really bad it was. Throughout my childhood, my parents really did teach me and my siblings the value of giving. My father was a preacher, and one of the things he stressed was service. He said you can talk a lot, but that means nothing unless you’re actually helping people. So I grew up with that desire in me, but I just never really knew where I could get plugged in.

 I began tending bar. I was a little rough around the edges and went the wrong direction for a really long time. Still, the one thing I never got out of my head was this service that my dad talked about. I was visiting my parents over Christmas in 2003, finishing up my degree at N.C. State University, and I woke up in the middle of the night with this phrase in my head, “wine to water.” To be honest, I didn’t know where it came from. I thought, “That’s backwards. That’s not the way it happened 2,000 years ago (when Jesus turned water into wine, as chronicled in the New Testament).”

I thought, “Is there something wrong with water in the world?” So I went downstairs to my parents’ computer and typed in “water issues, water crisis,” and all this information started coming up, and it just absolutely floored me. Basically that night I learned that water kills more children in our world than anything else. All this stuff was coming up about how bad the water crisis was and how many people die from it every year. Yet, from what I could tell, not much was being done about it.

I spent the whole night writing down the stuff I was learning and basically that night formulated the concept for this Wine to Water organization. I thought, “I may just be a bartender, but the people there are good people and I bet they would get behind what I was doing if I decided to start something to fight this water crisis.

Q:  How was your idea received?

A: It took me about a month and a half to pull together the first wine event. We raised about $6,000 the first night. About a month later we raised another $6,000 and people around Raleigh started sending in money.

Q:  How did you deal with this immediate success?

A: It was really growing quicker than I could handle so I decided the best thing would be to just give the money to another established organization that’s doing good work. The first organization I went to talk to was Samaritan’s Purse. They have a great water program. So I met with the head of projects, who ran their drilling operation in East Africa. The man asked me, “Why do you care? Why are you volunteering your time to raise money for this water crisis?”

I told him all I know is something happened to me a few months ago in the middle of the night, and I knew this was what I was supposed to be doing. So I just started raising this money.

He said, “Why don’t you come work for me? I’ll send you anywhere in the world you want to go and I’ll teach you to do this work. You can bring your money with you and use your money on the projects that you think are the best.”

I said, “Wherever the worst place for clean water is, I want you to send me there.”  And that’s how I wound up in Darfur.  I held my first wine event in February of 2004 and in August of 2004 I was headed to Sudan in the Darfur region. I lived there until August 2005. We were able to do a lot of good work, but it was a pretty bad war zone there. My convoy was ambushed a few times and I got very, very close to losing my life and lost two of my men. It was kind of a trial by fire. When I finished in Darfur, I had to ask myself, “Is it really worth it to risk my life to do this work?” I decided, you know what, it’s worth it. For the first time in my life, I actually felt that I was a part of something bigger than just me. Now we’re in 11 different countries around the world. By the end of this year, we hope to have reached 100,000 people with clean drinking water.

tl_files/cfte/images/news_images/2011.7.8_DSC_1160.jpgQ: What are the 11 countries?

We started in Sudan, and then Ethiopia and Uganda and South Africa. We have started a water system for a leper colony in India, and in Cambodia we have a great well drilling program that’s almost 300 wells.  Then we helped an orphanage in Peru and we responded to Haiti after the earthquake. We have a factory run by Haitians that gives water filters to Haitian earthquake survivors. And we have dug wells in Sri Lanka and we’re working on a well right now in Ecuador. We’re also getting ready to drill three wells in Vietnam.

Q: When you started out, you were single. Now you now have two children. Has having children made any difference in the way you perceive your work?

A: It really changed it for me because obviously children are the most affected by the water crisis. It’s the Number One cause of death in children under the age of 5. I was in this 100 percent before I had kids, but after I had my own children…I just came back from an area in Haiti where a woman can’t even provide a water filter for her family that will give her children clean water for five years, and it only costs $25.

Q: How have these experiences changed your life?

A: My world was very, very small before I got into this type of work. My life was about me and what I could do to have a good job and be secure and what was going to be fun or exciting for me. When I began Wine to Water, after living in Sudan and seeing especially the mothers... the year I was there, 100,000 people were killed by the government of Sudan and so I’m seeing these mothers living in these refugee camps, and they are doing everything they can do just to keep their children alive – just to keep them going one more day.

They will walk hours and hours and hours to get water and bring it back for their families. Seeing that and traveling to other countries around the world, it just changed me to where it was more appealing to me not to make it so centered on me and my needs.

It has changed the way I relate to other people, too. Now I think I’m able to love my wife and my children in a different way than I would have had I not experienced these things. I’m able to have relationships in a different way than I would have had I not started Wine to Water. It took living in some of the worst places in the world for me to realize that this world is not just about me and what I can get.

Q: What role do the local people play in your projects?

We support programs in the field where the locals have come up with ideas to help their own people. In Ethiopia, some guys built a drilling machine out of an old Land Rover. We support them with training and resources and finances they need to get going. Because once you get the locals involved, those programs are going to be much more sustainable. They are going to create ownership over those projects a lot better. I love getting in there with them and getting my hands dirty, but the good thing is, when I leave, those projects keep going.

Q:  You talk about providing water filters and drilling wells. Tell us more about the mechanics of this.

 A: So we do any type of work that has to do with water and sanitation. That includes things like latrines because those two issues go hand in hand, and we do different types of rainwater containment systems.  We do different styles of wells from machine-drilled to hand-dug wells. Then we also do water filtration systems. The two main types we use are called ceramic water filters, which is what we used in Haiti, and bio-sand water filters, which is what we do in northern Uganda.

Q: How do the water filters work?

The bio-sand water filter is kind of a concrete box that sits inside of a hut or home that will last 10 years and is basically layers of sand and gravel. The way it works is that there’s a natural layer of bacteria that forms in the top layer of the sand, and that bacteria eats other bad bacteria. You’re able to get over 90 percent clean water with that for 10 years just by harnessing the natural bacteria. The ceramic one is like a clay flower pot. Before you fire the pot, you mix sawdust into the clay and when you fire it, that sawdust burns up and leaves tiny, porous holes in the clay for water to trickle through. You also mix in a small level of silver before you fire it, and silver acts as an antibiotic naturally. They last up to five years and filter water that’s over 99.9 percent clean water.

Q:  What are some of the important things you’d like the students in the audience to know?

 A: Even though we’re focused right now on extremely underdeveloped areas and getting the poorest of the poor clean water, I do believe that water in the world in going to be a bigger issue. I think more wars are going to be fought over it than were ever fought over oil or gas. We’re seeing that as populations are growing. We have a lot of areas, even in our own country that have issues and people aren’t doing anything about it.

We need to compare how much water we use here with how much is used in underdeveloped countries. For example, the average East African family, which averages between five and six people, use five gallons of water per day for the entire family for all their washing, cooking, cleaning, drinking, everything.

The average individual in this country uses basically between 150 and 160 gallons every day – just one person.  That’s showers, toilet flushing. We don’t think about that, but every time you flush the toilet, a lot of times that’s three-to-five gallons – 150 gallons for one person per day in the States vs. five gallons for a family in East Africa.

If we were to drop our consumption down to 80 gallons a day, that would cut our usage in half and that’s still more than 10 times what a family in Africa uses. In the long run, if we start practicing those things, we’ll save ourselves a lot of headache in the future.