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Books by California teens translate into safe drinking water in Ethiopia and Uganda©

By LeAnne Bagnall

How to dig a drinking water well in a remote African village without any money or facilities?  Have some kids in Los Angeles write and illustrate a book about the situation and then publish it and use the profits to dig wells in Ethiopia and Uganda.

That was the creative solution of a California nonprofit organization, YouthInkwell Publishing (see box). In addition to earning enough money to dig two village wells so far, the project has attracted young American talent to do the illustrations and develop their artistic skills for future projects.

At YouthInkwell Publishing, the source of this creative movement comes from the pens of children.  Since 2005, the nonprofit publishing company has been helping young writers and illustrators turn their work into professional books in hopes of encouraging the artists’ peers to become artistically inspired as well.

However, YouthInkwell Publishing is not a vanity press for writers to kick off their careers with an early start.  One hundred percent of profits collected from the kids’ books go toward the construction of water wells in Ethiopia and Uganda.  YouthInkwell writers and illustrators donate their time and talent for the benefit of other children half way across the world.

Risking Lives

Throughout all hours of the day, girls as young as five years old can be seen walking along dirt roads of East Africa with tattered dresses and heavy jugs strapped to their backs, heading toward dangerous, remote locations for water. Every day of their lives, these girls must put themselves at risk of sexual assault, abuse, and kidnapping with this trip they must take for water.  Because of the traditional familial values, the burden of collecting water falls upon the shoulders of the young girls.

Without them, the function of the household and the village would fall apart. Girls are unable to obtain even a primary level of education because they have to haul water.

Often, the available surface water is polluted with chemical and human waste due to inadequate sewage control.  Yet the girls and the rest of the villages must use this water for laundering, cleaning, bathing, cooking, and of course—drinking.  The result of unclean water includes high levels of infant mortality from dehydration and diarrheal death, poor maternal health from weakened immune systems due to water-borne diseases and, indirectly, the spread of STDs and AIDS from assault, and extreme environmental hazards.  The lack of clean, accessible water has deep effects on a village’s entire population in this part of Africa.

Long, Lonely Walk for Water

Jennifer Sarja, Executive Director and Founder of YouThinkWell, saw this during her tour of East Africa with Save The Children’s Women’s Empowerment Delegation in 2004. She witnessed the young girls of the small villages walking long and lonely miles to collect water.  Sarja recalls meeting some of these girls hauling water back and forth on their backs: “I turned to three of the girls and asked if they would allow me to try putting their water jug on my back, just to see how heavy the jug was. The girls thought the suggestion was hysterical as I, with my bright sea-green t-shirt, wrapped the rope around my shoulders and the clay jug onto my back. It was heavy.  ‘Can I try it with water?’ I asked.  The girls seemed confused; the older women worried about dirtying my shirt. With a little coaxing, I convinced them to allow me to put a full jug on my back. And as the thick rope cut into my shoulders, I marveled at how the little girls of the village carry such weight to and from their homes, many of which were several kilometers away.  ‘We get used to it’ they replied.”


Wells Mean a Better Future for Girls    

Hired as a writer to document Save the Children’s programs focused on women’s health and safety, Sarja also attended the opening of a newly dug water well built upon the grounds of a community school in Ethiopia.  Suddenly, clean, accessible water seemed to be the key to everything working better: girls were finally able to attend school, become protected from harm’s way, and gather clean drinking water with ease for their families.  But most importantly, one simple well was providing these girls a chance at a better future with the opportunity of education.

Sarja, a screenwriter and writing instructor, returned home to Los Angeles, determined to teach her students about the children she met in Africa and their daily struggle for an education and the link to clean water.  The best way, it seemed, to relay this message was through nothing other than a book—the most powerful tool in the classroom.

Standing Up for Change

As Director of YouthInkwell, A Center for Writing that harbors bright and talented writers, Sarja decided to create a book for the purpose of funding water wells.  While Sarja wrote the story through the eyes of Watute, a young girl in Ethiopia who must gather water for her household, she found five local high school students willing to donate their artistic abilities by illustrating the storybook.

After hours of revision, editing, and designing, YouthInkwell Publishing and its kids produced When Watute Wants Some Water in 2005.  A beautiful story illustrated by then high school seniors Jeanette Low, Henry Phan and David Ro, it is the tale of a young girl who stands up to make a change in her small African village.  Longing for a chance to go to school, Watute must walk for water each day and pass by the scary cave on her path through the perilous woods.  Tired of dodging danger for polluted water, Watute becomes inspired and launches an international campaign to have a drinking water well dug in her village.


The children’s book is designed to teach children global awareness, community activism, and how they—as kids—can help change things for the better in the world. 

Along with YouthInkwell’s other first edition book How To Cook With A Pencil, A YouthInkwell Anthology: Volume One, written and illustrated by five YouthInkwell authors (ages 9-12), one hundred percent of book profits collected from When Watute Wants Some Water will help build a total of six water wells in Ethiopian and Ugandan villages.


Each well will be placed on school grounds for not only the sake of the female students, but for the whole community to use.  In 2006 alone, YouthInkwell kids were able to raise over $15,000 in book sales.  Construction has already begun on their first well, a borehole well located at the Kuno Kule School in Ethiopia. It is YouthInkwell Publishing’s belief that if you give a young mind something worth writing about, the possibilities for change are endless.  Barely entering the 2007 year, YouthInkwell kids are already well on their way to financing the construction of Well #2.

Children Making a Difference  

Because of the children’s efforts so far in Los Angeles County, over 1,200 students in East Africa will have access to clean water. It is the goal of YouthInkwell to provide access to clean water to over 120,000 people, all through the power of the written word.


YouthInkwell Publishing’s “Water Well Project” intends to create leaders out of our youth in order to establish a better future.  By teaching children the hazards and possibilities of today’s world, the project is giving them the power to sculpt their presence in the world of tomorrow. 

Simultaneously, YouthInkwell Publishing ensures that its kids are involved within their own communities at home just as much as they are concentrated on those abroad.  In addition to its Board of Directors, YouthInkwell is also guided by a Youth Board of Advisors who spearhead the company’s involvement within the community.

In the past, YouthInkwell kids have been invited to attend City Council meetings, Chambers of Commerce meetings, and the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach not only as guests but also as speakers.  In addition, YouthInkwell kids offer book signings and visits to local churches, schools, and libraries.


YouthInkwell channels the talents of young artists toward producing positive change where it is most needed in this world today.  One set of books for $60 can put twelve girls into a classroom.  For less than the price of an economy car, 160 sets ($9,600) can build one well, which will help over 2,000 children and their families have clean water for more than ten years.  Though YouthInkwell has only been in business for less than two years, the efforts of the company and its faithful supporters have already changed the lives of thousands.

For further information contact LeAnne Bagnall, Assistant Marketing Director for YouthInkwell Publishing. Call (626) 449-6884 x100.  To learn more, please visit


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YouthInkwell Publishing

UN 2006 Millennium Development Goals: Water goals begin at Section 2:18


YouthInkwell's Mission

At YouthInkwell Publishing, the source of this creative movement comes from the pens of children.  A nonprofit 501(c) 3 publishing company established in 2005, YouthInkwell Publishing has been helping young writers and illustrators turn their work into professional books in hopes of encouraging the artists’ peers to become artistically inspired as well. 

All profits from the kids’ books go toward the construction of water wells in Ethiopia and Uganda. 

YouthInkwell writers and illustrators donate their time and talent for the benefit of other children half way across the world.

United Nations’ Millennium Goals for 2015:

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Achieve universal primary education—Because of YouthInkwell’s “Water Well Project,” girls in Ethiopia will no longer have to walk miles for water but can instead go to school and fill their water jugs at the wells located on school grounds.

Promote gender equality—Because the girls will be attending school, they will have the opportunity to set higher goals for themselves.

Reduce child mortality—Clean water reduces the risk of diarrhea, which is a major cause of infant mortality.

Improve maternal health—Providing clean water to rural families in East Africa can prevent the spread of water-borne diseases that weaken the immune systems of nursing mothers and pregnant women.

Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases—Young girls in East Africa who walk great distances for water are vulnerable to sexual assault.  Providing clean sources of water in central areas of a community offers these young girls protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

Ensure environmental sustainability—By participating in the Water Well Project, children are learning about the importance of finding sustainable solutions to long-term problems.  Building wells is an immediate need; however, there is a far graver problem that needs to be addressed—the sources of clean water are becoming harder to find and sustain.  We are educating and inspiring our young people to face this problem head on.

Develop a global partnership for development—Partnerships require educated leaders.  We are creating those leaders right here at YouthInkwell.



YouthInkwell with photos






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