Teen got the ball rolling for clean water

Emma Rider has collected 100,000 pairs of shoes in five years. But those are just the tips of the laces that tie her tale together.

At 18, Rider has a knack for transforming old kicks into clean water. She explained the basics to the Lord Baltimore Lioness Club on April 16.

“One billion people lack access to safe water,” Rider said.

Through WaterStep, ordinary people can help just by donating their old footwear.

Shoes are sold to an exporter, and profits pay for clean-water programs, including public education, sanitation systems, water treatment and more.

“The reality for many people in the developing world is a 5- to 6-mile trek [to fresh water],” Rider said.

If a gallon of water weighs about 8 pounds, a woman or child will haul more than 40 pounds on her head or hip, just for 5 gallons.

A lifetime of that can cause severe damage to the skeletal structure.

But Rider wants to ease that burden.

Besides working on her fifth tractor-trailer load of used shoes, Rider is collecting cash donations to buy WaterBalls for those women.

WaterBalls hold at least 12 gallons, rolling easily as bright blue wheelbarrows over the terrain.

With a Lioness donation, the Delmarva Peninsula is close to funding 50 WaterBalls, which cost $200 apiece.

“Clean, safe water is at our fingertips,” said Rider, a Sussex Technical High School senior and JROTC battalion commander who plans to attend North Carolina State University.

At 13, Rider was on a Kentucky-based mission trip when she first learned about WaterStep, which had been collecting in the Louisville area for a long time. But why not collect on Delmarva, too?

Rider set a goal of collecting 4,000 pairs of shoes, to pay for one chlorination system. She sent 9,000 pairs to WaterStep that first year.

At a Kenyan orphanage, Rider saw the product of her labor firsthand. WaterStep invited her to a project trip to install water filters.

Originally, her brother was supposed to teach several villagers, but when he got sick at the last minute, WaterStep turned to Rider to teach them. In a country where a man’s perspective is often trusted over a woman’s, Rider was nonetheless a success.

“They just soaked up every piece of information that they could have … and they were praising God with every new thing they learned,” Rider said.

During announcements at the local church later that week, one woman proudly demonstrated for the whole congregation how to properly wash one’s hands.

The filtration systems can filter 10,000 gallons of water a day, using a handful of salt and a car battery, Rider said.

“It fits into a backpack, a small suitcase,” said Rider’s mother, Lori Ockels. “That’s the beauty of it. It can be backpacked into the Congo.”

As a bonus, chlorine is created as a filtration byproduct, which is used to sanitize the WaterBalls.

WaterStep’s focus is sustainability. Rather than dig new wells, villages get well repairs and chlorination filters.

“There are millions of wells around the world that aren’t being used because the hand pumps are broken, and no one knows how to fix it,” Rider said.

WaterStep also teaches people to run and repair their own systems, using as many locally-bought materials as possible. That shows clean water isn’t just “magic.” Plus, they create paying jobs for repair workers.

“Teaching them to fish,” one Lioness said, invoking the proverb about teaching valuable life-sustaining skills.

WaterStep trains a group of villagers, who then teach their neighbors and the children good health and hygiene.

Rider earned a national Jefferson Award for her volunteerism, ever inspired by the Bible verse Timothy 4:12, which Rider said equates roughly to, “Don’t let anyone look down on you for your youth, but be an example to the believers.”

Rider’s mother a watched proudly from the audience as her daughter made her presentation to the Lioness group.

“My husband and I have become very much part of the project,” Ockels said. “I hope that our communities continue to contribute. … It’s to show Emma, as well as WaterStep, this is a message that needs to be passed on. It is a problem that is solvable.”

Rider has wrangled shoe collections in seven states.

Besides donations, the family needs more “shoe wranglers” to deliver shoes from the local drop-off locations to the family farms.

Locals can donate shoes, which should be gently worn and in usable condition. The work keeps shoes on people’s feet and out of the landfill.

Several local businesses collect WaterStep shoes on a regular basis: Del-One, 30650 DuPont Boulevard in Dagsboro; Curves at 29 Atlantic Avenue in Ocean View; and Long & Foster Real Estate, 33298 S. Coastal Highway in South Bethany.

Emma Rider is also willing to speak before other groups. Email her at emma.rider@waterstep.org or visit www.WaterStep.org.

A correction to our April 17 story: Emma Rider herself has only visited Kenya with the group, although WaterStep has programs in Kenya, India, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Costa Rica.