By Caryn B. Davis / Photos courtesy Christine Ieronimo

IMG_0970It’s easy to take water for granted when all we have to do is open a tap whenever we want to cook, clean, bathe, quench our thirsts, or flush the toilet. Yet one in every nine people on the planet (that’s nearly one billion) has no access to safe, clean drinking water.

Studies compiled by the World Health Organization, the United Nations and UNICEF note that women and children in the third world “walk an average of four miles per day to collect water and spend up to six hours each day” in its pursuit. This does not necessarily mean the water they have sourced is free from infection. Often it’s the only water they can find. “Every 90 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease,” and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In rural villages in Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa, the responsibility of water gathering falls upon the women. Time consumed accumulating water is time not spent in school. For those girls fortunate enough to attend classes regularly, they usually drop out at puberty because “over half of the developing world’s primary schools don’t have water and sanitation facilities.” Without education, the cycle of poverty continues; but when women’s literacy increases, the economic growth of a country exponentially improves. Such is the power of having fresh water readily available.

Christine Ieronimo also never gave water much thought until she found her daughter Alemitu, “Eva,” drinking out of a puddle in her driveway. Eva was born in Ethiopia and was adopted by Christine and her family in 2008. In Eva’s village this act is not unusual. But in Plymouth, Connecticut it’s definitely not the norm.

“That was a powerful image because even though I knew she had come from a place that had no access to running water, to see her in the act of squatting and cupping her hands reinforced all of the struggles this two year old had been through,” says Ieronimo.

Ieronimo had always wanted to visit Africa, but with three biological children at home and a mortgage to pay, it was not a vacation she and her husband could afford to take any time soon. But when her aunt died, her life took an unexpected turn.

To honor her mother’s twin sister, Ieronimo wanted to do something meaningful in her memory. Her aunt was always helping people, so Christine decided to sponsor two girls from Uganda and paid for their schooling. Although they never met in person, the pair became a part of her family through the exchange of letters and photographs.

“One year I got a call that one of the girls had died from a blood transfusion. Rebecca was only 12 years old and HIV positive. That was devastating and led us on a journey of wanting to do more. We ended up in a program for Ethiopian adoption and were eventually matched with our daughter Eva,” recalls Ieronimo.

But when Christine flew to Africa to pick up Eva, the joyful occasion was marred by great sadness. Unlike many adopted children, Eva was not an orphan. She had two siblings and a mother who loved her dearly. They lived together in a muddy lean-to with a leaky tin roof and without electricity or plumbing. They cooked over an open fire, slept on mats woven from leaves, and ate upon a wooden table, the only piece of furniture they owned, save for a small bench. Eva’s mother was single and illiterate; and although she worked hard cleaning houses and doing whatever else she could,  without the benefit of an education she would never be able to support her family.

Eva was the youngest and the most vulnerable to starvation and disease. So her mother made a heart wrenching, unthinkable, yet extremely loving and courageous decision. She gave her daughter up to give her a better life.

“I thought I was going to adopt this girl, change her life, and be a part of  the saving of the world. I was really naive. On the other side of this happy adoption was this grieving mother,” says Ieronimo. “My gain was her loss.”

This experience haunted Christine and set her upon a different path. She wanted to share Eva with the world and let people know about the horrific choices impoverished women are often forced to make. This led her to publish her first children’s book in 2014 entitled, “A Thirst for Home: A Story of Water Across the World.”

“Eva’s mother didn’t have a chance to get an education; and that made it impossible for her to raise her child, so now I get to her raise her child because of that? No mother should have to make this kind of choice just because of where she lives and the lack of opportunity,” Ieronimo says.

Ieronimo wanted to give Eva’s mother and sister a voice because their story is not unique. It is shared with hundreds of thousands of women and girls around the world.

“This problem is so overwhelming. How can one person fix it? But it turns out it is fixable, and the way to fix global poverty is by educating girls,” she says.

Her book took five years to publish and has been embraced by teachers and is read widely in schools that also utilize the complimentary lesson plans Ieronimo developed. Christine has been a guest speaker in their classrooms and was a recent lecturer at the United Nations’ conference on STEWARDSHIP FOR A SUSTAINABLE WORLD: Education in the Sustainable Development Goals.

“As important as it to educate girls in other countries, it is just as important to get global issues into the classroom. I learned when children here understand how poverty, drought, and education are related, they are more apt to want to get involved and make a difference,” says Ieronimo who is working on a second book about Eva’s sister surviving drought.

Christine has returned to Ethiopia several times and started the Gimbichu Project in the village where Eva’s “other” family lives. The project sponsors young girls, including Eva’s sister, so they can attend school and works with the local health clinic. Ieronimo became familiar with the clinic when visiting Eva’s mother and brother who had contracted pneumonia. The family had no money for medicine, so Christine took him to the clinic for treatment.

“That’s how we got involved with the clinic. We have been able to buy a generator so when they lose power, which is often, they can still work. We bought a motorbike so they can efficiently take vaccines out to rural areas because they need to be kept cold. We started a blanket project where women who come to the clinic to give birth get a receiving blanket. That’s encouraged more women to come. It leads to a safer  delivery, and they can intervene if there are complications,” she says.

The Ieronimos have established deep ties to the people in this tiny village; and every time they go back, they share news of Eva with her mother, whom Eva will one day meet when she is ready.

“This has not been an easy journey at all. Financially, it’s very hard. But we do it because it’s the right thing to do. A lot of times people say, ‘They are so lucky to have you.’ But the truth is my daughter and the people in Ethiopia have changed our lives. They have shown us such love, taught so much about life, and what’s really important. We are the lucky ones,” says Ieronimo.

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