In many regards, Rachel Beckwith was a typical kid. But not in all regards. What made Rachel extraordinary was that from as early as anyone could recall, she wanted to give to others. And in the end, she gave more than most ever do.
A Heart-Warming Story
Rachel Marie Beckwith was born on June 12, 2002 in Issaquah, Washington, a town of about 30,000 people that sits 23 miles east of Seattle. Rachel was as full of life as you’d expect a young girl to be—and then some. She liked spending time outside. She loved to dance, jump rope and ride her bike. Rachel had straight brown hair and big dark blue eyes.
Her father’s name was Jacob Beckwith. Her mother’s name was Samantha Paul.
Rachel showed unusual concern for others early in her life. “She always had such a strong sense of empathy for others—especially other children,” explained her mother, Samantha. She was compassionate beyond her years. She often seemed more concerned with what she could do for others than what others could do for her—which isn’t necessarily a trait you find in too many young children.
When she just 5 years old, she learned about an organization called Locks of Love, which takes hair donations from healthy people to produce the highest quality wigs for people with cancer and other diseases that have caused them to lose their hair. Rachel decided to have her hair cut and sent to Locks of Love. Then she grew out her hair and cut it to donate her locks again.
Rachel’s family belonged to the Eastlake Community Church, where Samantha was an active member. Eastlake is a new mold of church, one where community and activism are emphasized. Ryan Meeks, who founded the church in 2003, when he was just 25, wears jeans and a t-shirt while leading the services. He emphasizes acceptance over judgment, saying his church is “a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.” The Eastlake message and approach resonated. By 2010, there were about 4,000 church members, most of them in their 20s and 30s.
Eastlake Community Church also had a habit of raising money for various causes. In 2010, one of the organizations Eastlake Community Church started to raise money for was “charity: water,” which had unlikely and inspirational origins in its own rite.
The story of charity: water
The tale of charity: water is, in many ways, a story of redemption and hope.
Scott Harrison was born in Philadelphia, and when he was young, his family moved to the suburbs in New Jersey. The Harrison family was a conservative, religious family. Scott was active in his church, and he spent much of his upbringing helping tend to his mother, who suffered from intense health problems.
And then at age 18, Harrison’s life became a “bad cliché,” as he puts it. He rebelled. He moved to New York City. He grew his hair long. He joined a band.
When the band dissolved, he became a nightclub promoter. And he turned out to be an awfully good nightclub promoter. His job was, in essence, to throw great parties, and throw great parties he did. “I got people wasted for a living,” says Harrison. “I sold them expensive drinks in expensive bottles at nightclubs.”
World-famous liquor brands would literally pay him thousands of dollars just to have him be seen sipping on their drinks in trendy clubs. He made gobs of money. As he puts it, “You can make a lot of money getting people drunk for a living.”
He had a grand piano in his Manhattan apartment. He drove a BMW. And he lived among the young, the rich and the beautiful. His girlfriend was a model.
From the outside looking in, he was the pied piper of New York City, living the life of Riley that many would envy.
But as you might guess, there was a darker story when you scratched away at the veneer. Harrison had a bad habit of picking up bad habits. Through years of hard partying, Harrison had steadily acquired one vice after the next. Life in clubs led to heavy drinking. Heavy drinking led to other drugs. Drugs led to stretches of his life that he can’t recall.
By his own account, he was up all night on most nights. He was doing massive amounts of narcotics—cocaine being his drug of choice. He had a gambling problem. He drank constantly. He was smoking two packs of cigarettes on most days. He was addicted to pornography. He hung out in strip clubs night after night.
But still, it had all the trappings of glamor. With a gang of his rich and beautiful friends, he took a trip to Punta Del Este in Uruguay in August 2004. The scene was something straight out of the movies. There were horses. There were servants. There was a stunning coastline. There was a private firework extravaganza. There were unlimited bottles of Dom Perignon.
And it was against this backdrop of posh extravagance that Scott Harrison had a realization that would change his life.
Harrison had been on what amounted to a weeklong bender. He woke up one day at 2:00 in the afternoon, hung over and with his head throbbing. He walked out into the intensely bright Uruguayan sun. He considered his lot in life and this was the thought that went through his mind: “I realized I was the worst person I knew. I was spiritually bankrupt. I was emotionally bankrupt. I was certainly morally bankrupt. I realized that I was never going to find what I was looking for where I was looking for it.”
Harrison, 28 at the time, decided it was time for changes. He quit smoking. He quit drugs. He quit drinking. He stopped going to strip clubs.
Those were all major lifestyle changes, but Harrison didn’t stop there. He decided to up-end his life altogether.
He left New York City and volunteered for a yearlong tour with an organization called Mercy Ships as a photojournalist. Mercy Ships takes doctors from around the world, puts them on a massive boat that has been retrofitted as a floating hospital, then stops at ports along the coast of Africa where the Mercy Ships doctors perform thousands of medical operations on those who would never otherwise be able to afford them. Mercy Ships has been doing these missions for more than three decades now, and they have performed more than 500,000 operations. Much of what they cure are ailments that people in the first world never see. Cleft palettes and cleft lips. Tumors growing out of people’s cheeks that are so massive that they overtake people’s faces.
Over the course of a year, Harrison took tens of thousands of photographs of the work being done on Mercy Ships. He saw people in conditions that he never imagined existed. He saw devastation and suffering that seemed unimaginable.
After his first year of service was over, he signed up for a second tour. And it was on that second tour that he started leaving the ship and going out into villages and towns. It was during this time that Harrison started to learn about the root causes of the diseases and malformations that the Mercy Ships doctors were trying to cure.
The single biggest problem that led to so many of the diseases and sicknesses that Mercy Ships worked to cure could be summed up in two words: dirty water.
People in Africa—and poor people around the world for that matter—often drink the same water that they bathe in. Children pull buckets of water from swamps that pigs live in, and then those children use those buckets for drinking water. Women walk for hours to draw water from muddy rivers, then walk hours to get back home—carrying the heavy jerry cans that contain the dirty water—to give to their families.
The volunteer that Harrison was shadowing would go into villages and help locals tap into water that was below ground. And by doing this, villages would be completely transformed. In his brief time with this one volunteer, Harrison saw thousands of lives being improved.
As Harrison started learning more water sanitation problems, he was stunned at the size and the scope of this problem.
In Africa alone, 345 million people don’t have access to clean water. In South Central Asia, close to 200 million people have the same problem. Worldwide, 780 million people suffer from not having access to the most basic nutrient for life itself: clean water.
And clean water problems create all kinds of residual effects on people’s lives that most of us in the first world never have to consider. Women and children spend hours every day in pursuit of water. It impacts their ability to do other chores, to get jobs, to go to school. And without water, the number of days children are too sick to go to school skyrockets.
What’s worse is that impoverished adults and children often drink filthy water that has parasites, worms, even leaches swimming in it. One of the most common sicknesses stemming from lack of clean water is diarrhea—something even children in the posh comfort of the first world come to know at some point. But in places like Africa and India and Bangladesh, diarrhea is so severe—and treatment is so scarce—that diarrhea leads to children dying. In fact, this ailment that most of us think of as an embarrassing but temporary discomfort claims about 1.5 million children every year, according to the World Health Organization. Said another way, about 4,000 children lose their lives from diarrhea every day.
All told, roughly 3.6 million people die every year from lack of water and sanitation, 84% of them children.
Like most of us who grew up in the comfort of the first world, Harrison struggled to wrap his mind around this problem. Just two years earlier, his existence was soaked in a world of $1,000 bottles of champagne, surrounded by people with more money than they knew how to spend. Now he was surrounded by people who couldn’t find potable water for the most basic of needs.
A New Mission
Harrison resolved that providing people clean drinking water would become his life’s mission.
He returned to New York City in 2006, and he founded a non-profit called charity: water. The first step in getting his organization off the ground was raising money, and the one way he knew how to make money was by throwing parties.
He organized his own 31st birthday party, which was on September 7th, 2006. He found someone to donate the club. He lured 700 people to the soiree, and he had a $20 cover charge. In total, $17,000 was raised that night. All the money collected from the cover charge immediately went to a refugee camp in Uganda, where the money was used to start building and fixing wells. And photographs of the project were sent back to the 700 guests who attended the party. People were inspired, and they donated more.
Harrison and his team also started working with major brands like Saks Fifth Avenue and Macallan, on fundraising drives. They used social media to spread the word about their efforts, and charity: water became the most followed charity in the world on social networks.
For his 32nd birthday, rather than throwing another birthday bash, Scott began a massive email campaign and asked everyone he knew for $32 to go towards drilling a well. The way he saw it, he didn’t need a tie or shoes or a gift card, not when so many people don’t have access to clean water. So he reasoned that the best gift people could give him was $32 to go towards drilling a well that would provide others water. He raised $59,000.
It dawned on him that most people—or at least most people in this part of the world—were in the same boat as him. They truly had everything they needed. Material gifts on their birthdays were just gestures, not necessities. So charity: water started the Give Up Your Birthday campaign. The idea caught fire. Scott’s friends started using their birthdays to raise money. Kids started doing it. Celebrities like Tony Hawk, Jack Dorsey, and Will and Jada Smith started donating their birthdays. In short order, charity: water was raising hundreds of thousands of dollars this way. And because they had found corporate underwriters to cover their operational costs, 100% of all donations went to providing clean water to poor people around the world.
The Eastlake Campaign
In 2010, Pastor Ryan Meeks learned about charity: water and was immediately drawn to the cause. On August 6th of 2010, Eastlake Community Church held a fundraiser called Drinks for Drinks. Not your typical church-sponsored event, there was a live band, a barbeque, beer and wine. The turnout was massive. They ended up raising $320,000 to help charity: water drill wells throughout the Central African Republic.
Scott Harrison was so impressed by what Eastlake Community Church had done, he flew to Seattle and spoke to the congregation at a service in December of that year to thank them.
Rachel Beckwith was sitting in the audience that day, and as Harrison told the stories of what charity: water did for people, she knew instantly that she wanted to be part of it in some way. “When she heard about charity: water, she was so excited,” recalled Samantha Paul.
Rachel decided she would give up her 9th birthday to raise money for the cause. She resolved that she would ask people to donate money to her charity: water campaign rather than get anything for her personally. In typical fashion, Rachel had more of a desire to give than to get.
“She was always so warm and giving and enthusiastic,” remembers Samantha.
In May of 2011, Samantha and Rachel set up her campaign on charity: water’s website. Rachel had until her birthday on June 12th to reach the ambitious goal of $300 she had set for her birthday fundraising drive. After that, the campaign page would be closed down.
On her campaign page, this is what she wrote:
Charity: water estimates that for each $20 donated, they can provide clean drinking water to one individual. The $300 Rachel aimed to raise would lead to clean water for 15 people. Rachel was thrilled with the idea of helping those 15 people have something so fundamental to life.
She was able to get dozens of people to donate money. Her aunts and uncles chipped in. Friends from church made donations. Even some of her 3rd-grade classmates donated to the cause.
But she struggled to get to her $300 goal. In fact, when her birthday rolled around, she was $80 short, having raised $220.
She was upset and disappointed about not getting to her $300. She told her mother she was sorry.
But she was also undeterred. She declared that she would try harder the next year, when she would launch another campaign for charity: water for her 10th birthday.
Around 7:45 in in the morning of July 20th, 2011, two trucks—one a logging truck and in front of that, a semi-truck—were barreling down westbound lane of I-90 in the Seattle suburb Bellevue. The logging truck was hauling about 60,000 pounds of lumber.
As they approached the interchange of I-405, the semi-truck drifted into the logging truck’s lane grazed the logging truck. The contact forced the semi-trailer to jackknife, slamming into the logging truck. Both trucks lost control.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. As they approached the interchange, the traffic had turned dense and slowed down. The trucks—both traveling around 60 miles an hour—sliced and slammed through one car after then next, turning cars into bowling pins. The logging truck lost its trailer, which careened into traffic. Logs started to slide off the back of the logging truck, and fishtail back and forth on the highway, slamming into oncoming traffic. The logging truck also lost its axle, which went lunging into moving vehicles. Meanwhile, the semi-truck slammed into the back right side of a Lexus, then continued to plow down the road and take out vehicles. In all, 15 vehicles got caught in the crash.
Sean Mee was a driver in one of those cars. Amazingly, once the chaos of the accident subsided, he realized he was alright. In fact, he was unscathed. He got out of his car to start checking on others. Cars were strewn across the highway. Vehicles were stacked against the semi-trailer, some sideways, some upside down.
Amazingly, almost everyone was alright. People were horrified and scared. Their cars were destroyed. But they were okay.
Except for one car—that Lexus that the semi-truck had rammed into. The driver of the car was a young woman who had been driving with her two girls. She wasn’t seriously injured, but she was inconsolable. “I approached the mother. She was hysterical, obviously. She had two kids in the back,” said Mee.
The younger of the two daughters—a 2 year-old named Sienna—was on the driver’s side of the car. She had minor injuries but was conscious and appeared okay. But it was the older daughter who was sitting on the passenger side of the car—the side the semi-truck had slammed into. She slumped there in her seat motionless. The girl was 9 years old. She had straight brown hair and blue eyes. It was Rachel Beckwith.
Police cars, ambulances and fire trucks sped to the scene. They rushed Samantha, Sienna and Rachel to Harborview Medical Center. Doctors ushered Rachel into the emergency room to assess her condition.
After several minutes, the news came out from the emergency room to Samantha.
Rachel’s spinal chord had been completed severed. She had traumatic head injuries. She was still alive, but only because of the life support equipment at Harborview. Rachel had no chance at long-term survival.
Spreading the news of the tragedy
Samantha and Jacob began to let family and friends know of the accident—that Rachel would never be able to survive without life support and her days were few. Being faithful members of Eastlake Community Church, one of the first people they contacted was Pastor Ryan Meeks. As chance would have it, Meeks was on a tour at the time with Scott Harrison and charity: water in the Central African Republic.
Meeks was, of course, blindsided by the news and heartsick. He found himself looking for some way to help while standing on a continent thousands of miles aw
After three of the most grueling and painful days young parents could face, Samantha and Jacob said their last goodbyes to Rachel, and then removed her from life support. She was pronounced dead that day, Saturday, July 23rd. Searching for some way to honor Rachel, Meeks asked Harrison if charity: water could reopen Rachel’s birthday campaign so that he could donate the $80 to get Rachel to her $300 fundraising goal. Harrison, naturally, obliged.
Even in death, Rachel continued to give herself to others—in the most literal sense. Her liver went to Chicago to a child who needed one. Her kidney went to a man at the University of Washington. Her pancreas went to Wisconsin for diabetes research.
But Rachel’s organ donations were only the beginning of the giving.
After charity: water re-opened Rachel’s birthday page so that Meeks could donate $80, Meeks started urging church members to donate to Rachel’s re-opened campaign. Meeks suggested that even if the thousands of church members couldn’t give large sums of money, they could surely donate $9 in memory of Rachel’s 9th and last birthday campaign.
Money started pouring in. By the day before they took Rachel off life support, her campaign had climbed to $6,000 raised.
The messages from donors on her fundraising page revealed how moved people were Rachel’s commitment to make the world a better place.
“Giving, smart, kind, lovable, patient, sweet, adorable and one of a kind are just a few things that describe you Rachel. From the first time I met you I became a better person. You have changed lives and will continue too. I have always been so proud of you. I love you so much!”
“We are in awe of you and your giving heart! You are an example of how we should give more of ourselves to others. Thank you for being so inspiring.”
“Thank you to Rachel and Family for reminding so many of us of all of the blessings we overlook and take for granted. My paradigm has shifted because of you. God bless you.”
“Thank you, Rachel !! You will forever remain an inspiration for doing good and loving the most deprived!”
“My family and I were blown away by the heart that Rachel had. As a mother you can only hope that your child will be as kind and as caring as Rachel. She has set a wonderful example for my children. I shared her story with them and today they are donating all the money they had in their piggy banks.”
Eastlake Community Church—comprised a new breed of young, energetic, modern churchgoers—instinctively turned to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to get word out Rachel’s story and her campaign. Matt Hasselbeck, a member of Eastlake and the starting quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, sent out a message about the campaign on Twitter, where he had 70,000 followers.
Local news outlets had started picking up on the story. The stream of donations to Rachel’s fundraising page accelerated. By the time of her funeral on Sunday, July 24th, her campaign had raised $100,000. By Monday, it was up to $160,000. By Tuesday, it hit $200,000—from 3,600 separate donations.
And it didn’t stop there. Word of Rachel‘s remarkable life continued to spread. The stream of donations became a torrent. By Thursday night, Rachel’s birthday campaign was up to $600,000.
Samantha appeared on national TV news shows with Scott Harrison the following week. For her, still in the early stages of grappling with her daughter’s tragic and sudden death, it was cathartic to see Rachel’s memory inspiring so many people to chip in to improve the lives of people in distant parts of the world.
This, of course, spread the word even further. Not only was Rachel’s campaign receiving donations from people throughout the US, people from all over the world were pitching in. Australians. Brazilians. Dutch. Amazingly, people from Africa were making donations.
On August 9th, two weeks after Rachel passed away, her birthday campaign—the one from which Rachel had hoped to raise $300 to help 15 people get access to clean drinking water—passed the $1,000,000 mark.
It was the single largest fundraising campaign in the history of charity: water.
Charity: water and Samantha decided to keep the campaign open until the end of September. People followed the page daily. They donated multiple times, often times in small amounts.
At its conclusion, Rachel’s birthday campaign had received 39,997 donations and raised $1,265,823.
It also inspired countless others to launch their own fundraising campaigns.
Changing the world
Charity: water routed 100% of the funds raised through Rachel’s campaign to their partners in Tigray, a region of Ethiopia nestled along the northern edge of the country, bordering Eritrea and the Sudan.
The work of building infrastructures so that people can have clean drinking water does not happen quickly. Wells take a long time to dig. Rainwater catchments take time to distribute and erect. Teaching people how to use sand filters can be a slow process. It’s frustratingly slow, in fact.
But because the projects stemming from Rachel’s campaign took time, there was an opportunity for Rachel’s family to see the fruits of Rachel’s contributions first hand. A year after Rachel’s death, Samantha Paul, Paul’s parents, and Ryan Meeks joined Scott Harrison on a trip to the region to see the work that was underway.
During the trip, they got to see Yellow Thunder, charity: water’s first drilling rig, capable to drilling up to 80 wells a year, which translates into to 40,000 people a year getting clean water.
The emotional highlight of the trip came on July 23rd, precisely one year after Rachel was taken off life support. That morning, the charity: water contingency made a two-hour trek to the village of Kal Habel. The people of this community, a world away from Bothel, Washington, had planned a memorial service in Rachel’s honor on this day.
The charity: water crew left early in the morning. The first stop they made was at a church. Harrison recounted the events of the day: “They told us they had been up since midnight, praying that God would keep Rachel's soul in peace. A photo of Rachel stood on the ledge, surrounded by candles. We paused, listening to the priests recite their prayers, singing ancient Ethiopian hymns over Samantha and her parents.
“From the church, we walked to a new well nearby that was funded by Rachel's donations. We cut the ribbon and watched water splash into bright yellow jerry cans. This water didn't have dirt or leeches in it, and it didn't carry deadly disease. It wasn't far away from people's homes, and they didn't have to walk for hours to find it. It was right there, in their village, and it was crystal clear. To prove it, Samantha took a long drink.
“The children wrote notes about Rachel, and handed them one by one to Samantha. A famous priest read a poem he wrote especially for the occasion, and then the village gave gifts to Rachel's family. A mother from the village made a speech and said Rachel's story would be a lesson to their children. She said that all the mothers in her village were praying for Samantha. Another community sectioned off a plot of land and called it Rachel's Park.”
Rachel’s initial ambition of raising enough money to provide 15 people with clean water had grown into a world-wide movement that would eventually help tens of thousands of people gain access to clean water—in 149 villages and communities throughout the region of Tigray. She also inspired thousands of people to get involved in a cause.
In many regards, Rachel Beckwith was a typical kid. But not in all regards. What made Rachel extraordinary was that from as early as anyone could recall, she wanted to give to others. And in the end, she gave more than most ever do.
How important is clean water? Gandhi, the man credited with freeing millions of Indians from British colonists, had an interesting perspective on that question. He once said, “sanitation is more important than independence.”
The work of charity: water continues. The organization has now raised $60,000,000 for water projects around the world. They have helped millions of people around the planet get access to clean water. But there is a long journey ahead. Roughly 30,000 deaths occur every week due to unsafe water and unhygienic conditions.
Charity: water has continued to grow and help people around the world gain access to clean water for the first time in their lives. Harrison has a goal of providing clean water to the world’s population. It’s an audacious goal, some would say impossible, but he’s optimistic that if enough people chip in, clean water for everyone is something we can achieve. And indeed, if enough people chipped in, it’s a problem that could be solved.
Tag, you’re it!
Now you’ve read the heart-warming, heart-breaking, awe-inspiring, world-changing story of Rachel Beckwith (I hope you felt the story lived up to the seemingly hyperbolic title). And once you come across the story, you become part of the story.
So now that you’re part of the story, there are a few things you can do:
1) Nothing (that would be kind of a bummer)
2) Share this story with people. To do that, share this on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or email it to people you know. (Isn’t it a story worth sharing?)
3) Donate. If you’ve gotten this far, perhaps you were inspired to by this story. Perhaps you can take the amount you’d normally pay for a good book, and donate that much here. (That would be awesome!)