#FollowTheLiters, Kenya 2015, The Trip of a Lifetime

Suddenly, I find myself in Western Kenya, in the Kakamega rainforest, with a bright blue team t-shirt, a Kenyan cell phone, a Lifestraw Go Bottle that I’m instructed to use at all times, and surrounded not only by my team members from all over the World (yes, seriously there was people from Canada, USA, Switzerland, India, China, Malaysia just to name a few places…) not to mention all of the local Kenyan staff and drivers.  I’m instructed to smile lots, ALWAYS shake everyone’s hands (no matter if they are covered in dirt), to sing and dance whenever possible, and to not be taken back if there are children that seemed to be frightened by me, as I might be the first white person they’ve ever had the opportunity to see…or touch.  Oh and by the way, we’ll be driving all over the place, there’s usually a huge rainstorm in the afternoon, but sometimes it comes earlier, it’s likely we will at some point get stuck in the mud, the roads aren’t always roads, the drivers drive really fast, and we’ll be visiting 4 schools a day, approx 1.5-2 hours at each school, plus driving to each school.  Sometimes you’ll have a full car, 5 people in 5 seats, sometimes you’ll end up with more in your car.  It happens.  When something goes wrong, or weird, well, you just have to go with the flow, and remember, you’re in Africa.  You may not get lunch, or it might just be chapata (like a homemade naan bread) at a road side stand.  Some schools you’ll be busting your butt to get the Lifestraw Community filters put together and working, other schools, you’ll be busting your butt to entertain 100-1000 kids that speak very very little English.  Guaranteed, when you say, I’m Solana, from CANADA, you’re going to get a ton of laughs and giggles.  Also guaranteed, if you reach your hand out to the kids, you will be swarmed with everyone wanting a turn to touch your white skin.  If you dare, let down your hair, and let them touch it, you’re guaranteed to be mauled (in a good way).

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Photo by Jess Daddio.

Whatever happens, you’re going to come out of each and every day, exhausted, happy, grateful for the experience, and thankful for all of the things we take for granted in Canada.

Let me tell you about my whirlwind experience in Kenya this November…

Yes, some people really did get stuck in the mud….

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Photo by Adam Ciuk, who got stuck not once but multiple times in the mud, and had multiple flat tires too!  Poor Adam…

Let’s rewind for a second, to explain for those of you not “in the know”, how I came to be a part of the #FollowTheLiters Lifestraw campaign in Kenya this fall.  I entered a contest at the very end of September, where I had to submit a photo of myself using a Lifestraw product, and write why I should be chosen to come to Kenya to join their #FollowTheLiters campaign.  I didn’t have much time, it was the weekend of the Buntzen Lake 5 Peaks race, and so I took a ‘decent’ photo (it was pretty terrible compared to the other finalists I’ll full admit), and I relied more so on my strength – writing, and connecting with others through my writing.  I was selected as 1 of 10 finalists, with the top 5 headed to Kenya.  50% chance?  Heck yes, I will pester my friends and family for a week straight, sending hundreds of reminder texts and daily Facebook and Instagram posts.  For a trip to Kenya, heck yes, I will be annoying.  It was an unfortunately super annoying contest, because it was 1 vote every 24 hours, so depending on what time you voted the day before, you might not even get a vote on the last day, and it was 7, SEVEN, days long.  A week doesn’t sound that long, but when you’re pestering people all the time, trust me, it’s a longggggg time.  And the worst part, was that there ended up being 4 of us from the Vancouver/Squamish trail running community.  Ooops.  I found out after the fact that the 3rd party company handling the contest applications only gave the Country location for all of us, so the peeps at Lifestraw had no clue that 4 of us all knew each other.  I say this was bad, because we were put in a position to ‘compete’ for votes from people we all know and are friends with.  And our poor friends who have all 4 of us on Facebook, well, that was sure an annoying week for them, let’s just say that.  Sorry guys!!!

It was stressful, having to worry about votes the entire week, but thankfully, my friends and family came through, and before I knew it I was booking booster shots, getting emails with tons of company and campaign information, applying for a Kenyan Visa, and attempting to get 2 weeks of work I’d be away for crammed into the 3 weeks notice I had before leaving.  Yep, we found out THREE weeks before we left!  Crazy doesn’t even begin to describe that timeframe.  I had planned on having a very chill October, and suddenly it was bonkers, absolutely bonkers.

Winning a social media contest puts you in a position where you need to look hard at how you’re feeling about a brand or product and decide exactly what you’re going to say, and what level of support you’re going to give them – whether or not you have a positive experience.

Unfortunately that’s the reality and the obligations surrounding this sort of thing.

Since I’ve always prided myself on being straight forward, honest, and blunt, I came into it with the thoughts of “I’ll definitely talk about the experience, since I know working with locals and school children is bound to be fun. I don’t know much about the company itself, but I’ll go in open minded, and see how I feel after. No promises to myself, or them for that matter that how my experience will play out, and what I will say after the fact”.

I think that’s a fair way of approaching things, and also a smart way, because I’m not putting pressure on myself, I’m just being me, and enjoying the experience.

I was extremely impressed, and while I came into it undecided, I’m now 100% in. My expectations were over exceeded time and time again, and it all came back to the community, the culture, and the amazing leaders that these companies employ and are run by.

Every day I came home to the hotel stoked on life, wanting to do more, and wanting to share my experiences with as many people as possible to try and make the biggest impact possible.  We need programs like this to create change in the world.  We need to continually strive to use our purchase power for good, and to do as much as we can for others.  It’s built into us to give back, and while sometimes we want to help, we just don’t know where to start, Lifestraw is an easy way to get involved and to make your dollars matter.

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In case you haven’t heard about LifeStraw, here are some fun facts (courtesy of Aicacia Young’s post about her experience.)

  • LifeStraw is owned by a parent company, named Vestergaard
  • In 1994, Vestergaard created a cloth filter to remove Guinea worm larvae from water
  • In 1999, the design evolved into more of a pipe-like form, and LifeStraw was born
  • In 1999, Vestergaard also launched the PermaNet, a long-lasting insecticidal bed nets for malaria prevention
  • In 2005, Vestergaard released its first personal water filter that could remove virtually all microbiological contaminants – the original LifeStraw
  • In 2008, Vestergaard released the LifeStraw Family, a filter for in-home use and larger volumes of water
  • In 2013, Vestergaard introduced the LifeStraw Community, a high-volume purifier for schools and clinics
  • In 2014, Vestergaard launched the LifeStraw Go, refillable water bottle for the outdoor enthusiasts
  • In 2014, LifeStraw created the Follow the Liters program in Kenya, providing LifeStraw Community filters to local schools
  • In 2015, Vestergaard added the LifeStraw Mission, a high-volume collapsible bag for group hikes and expeditions
  • Every purchase of a LifeStraw product in the US, Canada, and Europe will help fund the Follow the Liters program in Kenya

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Photo by Aicacia Young

The Follow the Liters program is only a few years old, but Vestergaard has had an office in Kenya since 1995 with about 48 local staff members.

In 2011, Vestergaard began distributing LifeStraw Family filters to over 4 million people with their Carbon for Water campaign, but they soon realized that schools were dropping the ball in terms of providing safe, clean water.

The LifeStraw Community filter became the solution to this problem, as it was created to:

  • Hold 50 liters of water
  • Provide clean water for 75-100 students
  • Last anywhere from 3-5 years depending on use

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Photo by Chris Brinlee Jr.

Now, Vestergaard has distributed over 4,000 LifeStraw Community filters to provide safe water for over 300,000 school children in Kenya.

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Photo by Aicacia Young

These schools receive the filters, education, maintenance, and replacements all for FREE when you purchase LifeStraw products.

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Photo by Aicacia Young

Thanks to Aicacia for simplying this out for us.  Fact finding and reporting is one of my least favourite things to do, as I always feel like I’m going to screw up and get something wrong.
While in Kenya, I personally visited 10 schools, out of the 330 schools that our team was visiting campaign week. Each school was unique and different. The overall vibe was always changing school to school and I can honestly say that I enjoyed every school in different ways. Some schools definitely were more my personal vibe and style, while others fit other members of the team better.

Adam was amazing at the goofy shot selfies with the kids…

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Photo by Adam Ciuk.

I tried…but I don’t have the same “Adam-face” skills

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The Kenyan children followed the lead of their teachers and the oldest students as to how to behave with us. My team headed out to remote schools on the Kenya/Uganda border and many of the children had never seen, let alone met a white person.

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Some photos from the more rural areas from my iPhone:

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The last school we visited, on the flip side, was a catholic boarding school for girls, and they all spoke a level of English that we hadn’t seen at any other schools, and they all had a higher level of patience and listening than at other schools.  Aren’t they beautiful?

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Until of course they figured out that Chris had beautiful long red hair…a white man, with long hair?  Oh they had to touch that!

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I felt bad about sending the kids after Chris’ hair, until her told me it was one of his favourite moments of the trip.

My favourite school was tucked into a valley, surrounded by mountains, beautiful landscapes, with a huge grassy soccer field, and red clay dirt all around. The kids were so welcoming, so friendly, and it felt like home. I went running with the kids around the field, we danced, we sang songs, and we connected.  Somewhere there’s some great GoPro footage of me and Chris running around the field being chased by literally hundreds of kids, but right now, I don’t have that to share with you.

**Chris and I also got left at this school accidentally, but that is a post for another time…**

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Photo by Jess Daddio – from my favourite school of the campaign.  Jess is a journalist/videographer/photographer, and she wrote a post about our experience just after getting home that you can find here.

It’s hard to really put into words what it was like to be part of this experience. I knew it was going to be fun and interesting, and that it was going to be hard work and tug on my heart strings. I knew all that, and I was prepared. The days were filled with the high highs of being adored my hundreds of children one minute, and then driving 1…2…3 hours the next. Every new school you had to give yourself a pep talk to find some energy to get out and for lack of a better term “rock the crowd”.

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Photo by Chris Brinlee Jr.

Most of the time, this just came naturally as soon as you stepped out of the SUV and saw all of the curiousity that you created.

Different schools needed a different approach. Some schools were wild and crazy high fives and handshakes to 500 children in the first 5 minutes, I’m not kidding. And other schools were more about drawing the children out of their shyness and getting them to smile.  Showing them that we aren’t scary, and in fact we’re the same as them, just lighter skinned.

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Photo by Aicacia Young.

What the schools all had in common though, was the need for safe water. We saw water sources of a pipe out on concrete, a river, rain fall tanks, pumping systems, and sometimes it was noticeably discoloured, while other times it didn’t look so bad to the naked eye.

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Photo by Jess Daddio.

After filtering about 10L of water, the backwash, the concentrated contaminated water, would always be something that you would never feel comfortably drinking yourself or handing over to your children.

From left to right:  Clean & safe filtered water, the original un-filtered water, and the backwash concentrated contaminated water.

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Photo by Jess Daddio.

It was painfully obvious just how spoiled we are in North America, and everything we take for granted.  Not only do we expect that water will be clean and safe, but we also expect it to magically come out of not just 1, but multiple taps in our houses.  The farthest we have to walk for water is maybe a few meters at most.  These kids, they don’t have that luxury.

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Sometimes we’d have to walk down a steep hill to a stream half a km away from the school, or sometimes we’d have to walk up and down rock faces, through cow pastures and sugar cane fields to find an exposed pipe.  Other time there was rain fall buckets, or wells to draw water from.  Sometimes with the wells, they would need multiple kids to pump while the others drank as they couldn’t do it as just 1 person.

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Photo by Chris Brinlee Jr.

It hit a nerve as to just how much we expect, and how much we have.  We know nothing of needs vs wants, everything that is a perceived need, is likely just a want, like a rain jacket for running, or new shoes with tread.  Half of these children are barefoot, the other half in hand-me-down shoes that don’t even fit or are falling apart.  There’s no one wearing new clothes, I would beat that every school uniform we saw had been mended, stitched, repaired, and worn by another child (or 5) before ending up on the child we met.

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Photo by Aicacia Young.

But, you know, regardless of the walk to get water, and regardless of the lack of clothing or shoes or accessories, these children are genuinely happy.

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Photo by Jess Daddio.

They aren’t sitting around on electronics and ignoring each other.  They are putting each other down on Facebook and cyber bullying.  Most of them haven’t ever seen an iPhone and they have no clue of everything a handheld device can do.  These kids are interacting the old fashioned way.  Playing outside, playing with anything they can find – rocks, sticks, tires, anything they can get their hands on.  They’ll sing (and dance) whenever asked, and they all know a huge repotraire of songs.  These kids don’t need much.  And very differently from the first time Jay and I visited East Africa, I wasn’t asked for handouts.  These kids were genuinely happy to shake my hand, run around in a field with me, sing and dance with me, and touch my golden hair or white skin.  I even got dance lessons at one school.  They just want to connect person to person, no technology involved.

Proof:

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Photos by Chris Brinlee Jr.

And well, since everyone loves a goofy selfie…

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Photo by Chris Brinlee Jr.

The Follow the Liters Kenyan project is funded solely by sales in North America, and Europe. The Vestergaard company has figured out a way to turn every purchase into 1 year of clean water to 1 child in Kenya.

Scott drinking out of a local water source, using the latest Lifestraw Product, the Lifestraw Steel.

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The actual filtration systems themselves will last between 3-5 years based on average consumption, at which point the filter may just need to be changed, or if the unit hasn’t been taken good care of, it may need to be repaired or replaced.

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Photo by Chris Brinlee Jr.

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Lifestraw has local Kenyan employees that all have schools under their jurisdiction that they follow up with, are available for service or maintenance, and overall keep the relationship open and thriving.  At each school we visited, there was multiple learning sessions.  The Kenyan locals took the lead on these, as they were taught in Swahili.  We understood them though, as we had gone through an intense training session on every aspect of the Lifestraw filter systems before being sent out into the field.  As a group the school would learn the basics, the overview of the system and why we were there, and then we would split up into smaller groups to learn the details.  Each school had already chosen prefects, pupils who were selected as the only students that would be in charge of the cleaning, moving, storage, filling of, and disposing of the backwash of the systems.  These prefects were taught in their own room, with tons more information, and given a special Lifestraw bracelet to wear to show their special duties.  All of the schools ahead of time had to find usable tables and places for each Community filter.  To be an approved table it had to be an approximate height for easy use, it had to be stable to hold 50L of water, and it had to be level/flat/well built.  The types of tables varied at each school, and many of them were handmade by locals.  An approved spot would need to be in the shade, away from direct sunlight, and flat or level for the table to rest on.  This wasn’t always an easy thing to find, especially for multiple filters, but the schools figured it out, and if things weren’t quite right, we’d help them to find better places and explain why.

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From the launch of installing the Lifestraw Community units in 2014 in Kenya, the project doubled to the 2015 campaign. They were able to reach 330 more schools and 2500 systems. Who knows what could happen in the future with the ongoing support from North America and Europe.

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Photo by Chris Brinlee Jr.

Follow the Liter programs in China and India are also in the works for their regions, and hope to be launched in 2016.

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It’s really amazing to see firsthand where your dollars are going, and knowing that it’s not just a one-off campaign of dropping something first world into the third world, and then disappearing. The knowledge that this program has only gotten bigger, better, and able to help more and more children is the backbone behind this, and the true representation that we’re changing lives.  The amount of children missing school for illness from the contaminated water has drastically changed, and the hope and goal is that all families and all schools have access to clean, safe water in the future.

Personally, I know I’ll be buying some Lifestraw Go’s for my family and friends who travel and adventure, as it was a lifesaver having a water bottle with me at all times that can filter any water, and keep me safe and hydrated.

Using my Go during a hike in the Kakamega Rainforest

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I filled my Go from streams, wells, pipes, hotel water, etc, all over Western Kenya and I never questioned the quality of the water I was sipping, nor did it taste weird or like there was anything added, chemically, to the water.  And no, I had no sickness or illness at all.   Not even an upset stomach while we were there.

I feel like this is a necessity to anyone who’s doing any traveling where the water quality is iffy. It’s a no-brainer to be safe, save money and resources of buying bottled water, and always have something in your hand that you can use to drink with. It’s brilliant really, and I can’t believe I haven’t seen or heard more about them. For the traveling and adventuring we’ve done, this is something that should be a staple in our lives.

Just for example, my parents.  They are snowbirds that live in Mexico in the winter, and the Mexican water system is not safe to drink from the tap.  They buy bottled water on a regular basis, or have to boil water to drink.  With them being active and out running, bike riding, and walking the beach daily, they need to stay hydrated, but by buying water bottles they are spending money they don’t need to, and putting more and more plastic out into the world.  So, spoiler alert – they are both getting Go’s for Christmas!  (They both actually asked for them after seeing my trip, but I was already planning on purchasing them as gifts).

As a way of providing some extra incentive to get involved in this program, lifestraw.eartheasy.com, the North American distributor of Lifestraw has provided me with a discount code to share with all of you, for 20% off Lifestraw products (and free shipping in Canada!) until the end of December.  The code is “5PEAKS20″  If you’ve been on the fence for wanting to try their products, or just want to support a great cause, this is a great opportunity to do just that.

I’ll be honest, I knew the Lifestraw personal straw product but I didn’t know about other products, I didn’t know about the company and the mission behind it, when I first applied for the contest. I knew that I liked the concept, and I knew that I wanted to be part of the positive changes in Kenya that Lifestraw and Vestergaard were involved with, but I really went in very under prepared with company knowledge.

But now, now I want to tell everyone (and their dog) about these amazing companies that are so much more than what they sound on paper. And they are pretty darn impressive on paper, so that is a huge compliment! The staff all over the world working on these projects show so much passion, so much enthusiasm, and you never feel like it’s a big stuffy corporation. Instead, you feel like you’ve joined a family of like minded individuals that are working together to make changes happen.

I’ve always been true to brands I love, but it takes a lot to impress and woo me. There has to be honesty, humility, hard work, and an all around appreciation for the people in the company and all that they bring to the table.

I can wholeheartedly say that Lifestraw and Vestergaard are companies I will stand behind, and I will stand for, whatever they decide to do next.

I was a bit skeptical about the trip and about what we’d really be doing, whether it was a true benefit to Kenya, or whether it was a publicity stunt. It’s not fake my friends. It’s genuine, it’s real, and it’s changing lives. And it’s not just a 1 year thing, it’s a long term investment that has grown every single year, and gets stronger every campaign. It’s investing in the communities, it’s helping them, and it’s about moving forward together.

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Photo by Jess Daddio.

We didn’t just dump technology in their laps and leave. We taught them how to use the systems, how to clean them, we gave them hygiene lessons for their general health, and just as importantly we brought joy and laughter into their day.

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Photo by Jess Daddio.

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So very special, and something that I hope I can be involved in again in the future to some degree. Whether or not I make it back there to lug 20L jugs of water up a hill, or not, this campaign has my support and my backing for as long as it’s around. It’s no joke, and it’s an amazing opportunity for us North Americans to speak with our spending dollars and make a contribution to a child while getting a rad product that I promise you you’ll use and love.

After spending time with on the Follow the Liters campaign, we were sent off to have more of a “Kenyan experience” which was amazing beyond words, but I’ll blog about it separately.  This post is about water filtration systems and just how valuable and important they are.

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Photos by Chris Brinlee Jr.

The only piece of the puzzle that I really haven’t touched on, is the people I met and connected with during the trip from the contest side of the things, the media team, the guests of the campaign, and most importantly the main players behind the campaign.  Guys, just let me tell you, that I met some really truly amazing people during this trip.  I met some people that absolutely warm my heart and soul just thinking about them.  I had some conversations that will resonate with me forever.  I connected with many people on different levels, and I definitely made some forever friends on this trip.  I can’t say enough good things about the team of people that were there either working or volunteering their time.  The people behind a cause are what makes it special and different, and I can say with full confidence that the Lifestraw/Vestergaard team is truly amazing.  I’m left with so many memories, so many experiences, and so much love, admiration, and respect for every single one of them.  It doesn’t seem like it was only 10 days with these people, and I will never ever forget this experience, especially because of them.

And then there’s this….which is my friend Chris Brinlee Jr’s bum, featuring the Lifestraw Go water bottle, on our hike of the Kakamega Rainforest.  #droptroughforcharity my friends!

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I’m so lucky and blessed to have ended up on this trip in the first place.  I am a firm believer in karma, and things working out as they should, that you’ll be returned everything you put out into the world back to you, you just have to be a good person, you just have to be real, authentic, honest, and you have to be who you are, not who you think people will like.  I really believe I was meant to be on this trip, and that it happened the way it did because I can handle that sort of whirlwind, I can take it all in stride, and I can help them make a difference in this world.  It’s taking a step in the right direction, and I promise you, we are changing lives.

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Photo by Jess Daddio.

Some short videos to give you some more visual experiences of our trip, all are worth watching and won’t take you more than a few minutes each.

Adam’s Video

Jess’ Short Instagram Video

Lifestraw Slideshow from Eugenia Martin – one of the Lifestraw core team members

Again, I’ll re-iterate this:

As a way of providing some extra incentive to get involved in this program, lifestraw.eartheasy.com, the North American distributor of Lifestraw has provided me with a discount code to share with all of you, for 20% off Lifestraw products (and free shipping in Canada!) until the end of December.  The code is “5PEAKS20″  If you’ve been on the fence for wanting to try their products, or just want to support a great cause, this is a great opportunity to do just that.

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Photo by Chris Brinlee Jr.

Have you heard of Lifestraw or Vestergaard before?  Were you aware of everything they were doing to help promote change and health in the world? 

xoxo

-S

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8 Responses to #FollowTheLiters, Kenya 2015, The Trip of a Lifetime

  1. Simone says:

    And this… this is why I have always enjoyed reading your words little lady!

  2. Carol says:

    Awesome! So proud of you!

  3. Greg says:

    Solana, this is beautifully written, inspiring, moving…..thank you for this!

  4. Lindsay Seaman says:

    Thank you for sharing your incredible experience with all us. I felt like I was along with you in beautiful Kenya with its amazing, lively children. Awesome!

  5. Elizabeth Purkis says:

    Outstanding Solana, thoroughly enjoyed this read from start to finish. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  6. Eloquent and elegant writing from the heart with enthusiasm with understanding and compassion for the Kenyan children Admired Company’s motto to provide clean water to all children a global provenance

  7. Cathy says:

    Great read! A life changing experience, for sure. I think this was the ‘real’ Kenyan experience!

  8. Gisele says:

    Loved reading of your experience in Kenya! It’s a wonderful thing that Vestergaard is doing!

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