Karla Allen, executive director of Ozark Water Projects, will make presentations in schools throughout Arkansas this fall to tell students how shoes can be turned into clean water.
She will describe how donated shoes are collected through drives at schools and churches, loaded by the bagful onto trucks and sold by the pound to exporters for money that will finance the drilling of wells and hand pumps in Haiti.
By the time she leaves, students will have tried on flip-flops made from water bottles, dragged a five-gallon container of water back to their "village," learned about bartering and watched a video about the organization -- all in preparation to kick off a shoe drive at their school.
What students won't learn during the presentation is that the death of Allen's husband earlier this year -- just a year and two days after the death of their eldest son -- left Allen to head Ozark Water Projects alone.
Suddenly, bags of shoes were no longer being retrieved from schools and churches on time. Paperwork wasn't completed and mailed in its usual steady flow. It all led Allen to consider dissolving Ozark Water Projects.
"I was doing it all by myself," she said, "but I was doing it badly."
For Allen and her husband, Beckham, the idea of helping others gain access to clean water took root during a trip to Africa. After touring a safari, the Allens found themselves in a village where a group of 20 to 30 "beautiful, bright-eyed children" excitedly took the couple by their hands to show them where a well had recently been installed.
"It was like something out of a movie," Allen said. "It touched us so much that water meant so much to them ... even [as] children. You knew that they understood what a difference [the well] would make in their lives."
Beckham Allen declared that one day he would return to Africa and do something similar to help its residents.
That day came nearly 20 years later, after Beckham had been laid off from his job as a project manager for IBM, and Karla had been teaching business and accounting courses at the high school level.
That day the couple saw George "Shoeman" Hutchings of Eagle Wings Ministries on TV, explaining how he funded drilling rigs and created wells for people in Kenya. The Allens contacted Hutchings, who showed them how he'd organized shoe drives to raise money for drilling wells.
Soon afterward, Ozark Water Projects began with Karla, Beckham, and their eldest son, Christopher, as co-founders.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Haiti has the lowest rates of access to clean water, toilets and other sanitation sources in the Western Hemisphere. Waterborne diseases abound, and the cholera outbreak that occurred shortly after the 2010 earthquake resulted in more than 600,000 reported cases of cholera and more than 8,000 reported deaths as of June 2013.
Since 2010, Ozark Water Projects has drilled about 25 wells financed by money raised from donated shoes. Shoes sell at an average of 35 cents a pound, depending on how the dollar is faring. Allen estimates that Ozark Water Projects has collected and sold 400,000 pounds of shoes from churches and schools.
A chain reaction begins when a source of clean water is installed. Waterborne illness rates drop, and productivity among the residents increases. The responsibility of carrying water from wells to villages traditionally falls to the women and children, who spend an average of six hours a day walking to and from a water source miles away and bringing back 5-gallon buckets of water balanced on their heads -- each of which weighs up to 40 pounds. With a well, newfound free time allows women and children to attend school and get an education. There is also time for farming -- this time with clean water -- and eventually the sale of extra produce.
"Because of stinky old shoes we have just eradicated diseases, increased education and increased food security," Allen said. "That's why we do water. For us, everything starts with water."
NUMBNESS FROM GOD
Ozark Water Projects continued after Beckham was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia four years ago, and the Allens' last trip to Haiti together was in 2015.
"[Beckham] wasn't doing very well, but I wanted to make sure he went because I figured it would be the last project that he would [be a part] of, because that was his thing," Allen said. "He was a helper ... if you needed a ceiling fan put up, he showed up. If you needed to move, he showed up. If you needed something, he was one of those people who showed up."
In the meantime their son Christopher, who was a hydrogeologist studying groundwater movement and a part of Ozark Water Projects, had been prescribed pain medication for a medical condition. Christopher had struggled with addiction but had been clean for six years, Allen said, before succumbing to a drug overdose in January 2016 at the age of 32.
Allen said she had felt a God-given numbness the first few weeks after Christopher died.
"You don't realize that you're being granted a numbness from God, but that thaws," she said. "It thaws out to how the loss actually feels."
By that time Beckham's dementia had worsened, and Allen found herself explaining Chris' death to him every day.
"He couldn't remember that Chris had died and he kept asking, 'Where's Chris?'" Allen said. "I would explain it to him, but I just had to quit [and say] 'He's off with his friends' or 'He'll be here later.'"
Despite reliving their son's loss every day, Allen said the hardest thing was picturing "being excited about a world that my son isn't in anymore."
This year, which would have marked the Allens' 30th wedding anniversary, began with Beckham's death at the age of 64 in January.
Friends brought her food, took her places and supported her emotionally. But, left alone to manage Ozark Water Projects, Allen said she felt "bereft, or adrift." Allen said she had heard those words before but had never really understood how they felt.
"Now I really know what [those words] mean," said Allen, who admitted there are times when the only thing that keeps her going is her younger son, Cory, who also has become involved in the organization.
A FRIEND IN NEED
Antioch General Baptist Church -- in the small community of Fox near Mountain View in Stone County -- was already heavily involved in missions work.
Roy Clark, Antioch's pastor, asked his congregation of about 75 one Sunday in March to write a brief description of any missions work they were involved in and received 30 detailed responses.
Ozark Water Projects usually begins the process of a shoe drive when Allen reaches out to a school or church and pitches the idea of making a presentation about the project's work in Haiti.
"We saw the wisdom of collecting shoes and turning [them] into purified water," Clark said. "I didn't know [Ozark Water Projects] were supposed to make a presentation before we collected shoes."
Clark had seen Karla Allen on a local television station talking about Ozark Water Projects, and the church had organized its own shoe drive. He contacted the Allens, and when they came out in a pickup to retrieve the donated shoes there were so many that the couple had to make a second trip. The church held several annual shoe drives for the organization, through which the Allens became acquainted with Shelia Mitchell, principal of Rural Special Elementary School in Fox and a parishioner at Antioch.
"Whatever else I am, I don't forget things," said Mitchell, who was supposed to have organized the church's shoe drive in December but had forgotten.
An apologetic phone call to Allen turned into a visit from Allen to the school and an hourslong lunch in which Mitchell learned of Beckham's death. That lunch turned a wish to be more involved with Ozark Water Projects into a decision.
"It was just one of those times where a door just opens," Mitchell said.
That evening she told her husband, David Mitchell, that she was going to become the outreach coordinator for the organization, which meant scheduling presentations for Allen at schools, making use of a lot of contacts and helping Allen get back into schools and focused on moving forward.
"He just looked at me and said, 'I'm not going to have to go to Haiti, am I?'" Mitchell said. "Those were his exact words."
Mitchell assured her husband that was not the case, but in the meantime she had seen a very specific need for a new promotional video. Parts of the video Allen had been playing at schools and churches featured Beckham.
"Every time that video [plays], it's as if I didn't even expect [to feel grief], but there it is," Allen said. "It just kind of zaps me in the heart, [because] there [Beckham] is in the video."
Within a month of joining Ozark Water Projects, Mitchell knew she needed to go to Haiti. Antioch paid for the tickets for Mitchell, her husband and a videographer who volunteered her services.
The three of them, along with Allen, visited Haiti in June. While there, the organization drilled a well in Mirebalais, made two hand-pump repairs and completed filming for the new promotional video.
The organization also saw the addition of a new dimension to its educational materials: Vacation Bible School and Sunday School curricula. Mitchell developed the curricula with Allen for working with what Mitchell called an "amazing number" of churches throughout the state, saying that their work together "has really opened a lot of doors for Ozark Water Projects.
Allen realized she couldn't stop her work with the organization.
"I thought I couldn't keep doing it, but now it's like I feel like grateful every time I go and talk to a school or [church]," Allen said. "I'm kind of overwhelmed with the gratitude I've been left with, that my husband and my son ... left me with this meaningful job."
Thanks to Mitchell, and the hiring last month of an assistant, Courtney Fallings, who has been a volunteer with the organization, Allen has been able to keep her, and Beckham's vision alive.
"That's how it's supposed to work," Allen said of the support and help she has received since losing Beckham and Christopher. "That's how God wanted it to work, and that's exactly what happened."
The red Converse All Star high-tops Karla Allen wears to all the events promoting Ozark Water Projects have become her trademark.
More information about Ozark Water Projects is available at ozarkwaterprojects.org.
Religion on 09/16/2017
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