My six-year old, Ryan, was the sensitive one. The middle-child-between two brothers Keegan, three, and Jordan, eight --Ryan never would leave anyone out of a game. He was always thinking of other people before himself, praying for them, even. Still, my husband, Mark, and I were surprised when we walked in the front door after work one day four years ago and Ryan immediately announced, "Mom, Dad, I need seventy dollars!"
"What for?" I asked.
"For people in Africa." Africa? "They don't have clean water to drink. We heard about them in school today. My teacher said it would cost seventy dollars to dig them a well. So can I have it?"
"Honey, we'll have to talk about this over dinner," I said.
Ryan was even more excited at the table. "Today our teacher told us poor people in Africa drink bad water from swamps and streams and get sick and die. If I can get seventy dollars, they can make a well in the ground to drink from."
I didn't know what to say. I was proud of my son's generosity, but the world just doesn't work that way. It's not made of sweet innocent people like Ryan. He didn't understand that no one in Africa goes around digging wells for a first grader in Canada. He's only six, I thought. Maybe he'll forget about it.
As usual Ryan kneeled at his bed that night and prayed, "Please, God, bless Mom and Dad and my brothers." Then he added, "And let there be clean water for everybody in Africa." Okay, maybe he won't forget so easily. But I don't want him to get hurt or disillusioned.
Mark and I discussed what we should do. "He wouldn't learn anything if we just gave him the money," Mark said. "But we could encourage him to earn it."
Mark and I sat down with Ryan. "We can't give you seventy dollars," I said, "but if you want, you can earn the money by doing extra chores, in addition to setting the table, feeding the dog and making your bed." Ryan's face lit up. I found an old cookie tin and put it on top of the refrigerator. I said, "We'll put all the money you earn in here." I drew a thermometer with lines broken up into 35 spaces, and put it on the wall. "Each of these spaces stands for two dollars, Ryan," I said. "For every two dollars you earn, you can color a space."
Ryan washed windows, swept the garage and picked up branches after an ice storm. He was an average student, but when he brought home an improved report card that spring, we gave him an extra five dollars, which he immediately put in the cookie tin. Each night, his prayers would end with the now-familiar "And please help me get clean water for the people in Africa."
I kept waiting for Ryan to tire of the chores or get bored with the blank spaces on his thermometer. But he kept plugging away, even helping the neighbors with their yardwork. Ryan picked up a few more dollars collecting pinecones with his brothers for my mother to use in her craft projects.
A few months later, Ryan looked as if he might actually fill in all the spaces on the thermometer. Who do we give the seventy dollars to? I thought. I called my friend Brenda, who worked for an organization that helped developing countries around the world, and quickly filled her in on Ryan's well project.
Brenda, Ryan, and I went to WaterCan's office that April. Ryan struggled under the weight of the cookie tin, but he was determined to present it to the director, Nicole Bosley, himself. "Here's seventy-five dollars I earned," he said. "Please use it for a well in Africa. There's an extra five dollars. Maybe you could use it to buy the workers some lunch."
"Thank you, Ryan," Nicole said. "Your gift means a lot, but I have to tell you this much money will only buy a hand pump. To drill a well actually costs about two thousand dollars." Ryan didn't seem fazed by this news at all. "That's okay," he said, "I'll just do more chores."
That night I discussed Ryan's latest hurdle with Mark. "It took him four months to raise the seventy dollars," I said. "He'll never reach two thousand."
"He's come so far already, " Mark said. "We can't let him down now." God, I prayed, please look after my son. I don't want him to get his heart broken.Brenda wrote a story that appeared in our local paper, the Kemptville Advance, about Ryan's project. Funds trickled in from sympathetic readers.