How One Woman Works to Make Clean Water Accessible to All

Daily Point of Light # 7755 Feb 26, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Melissa Ellis. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

A native of Michigan, Melissa Ellis became a registered nurse in 1998. Shortly after she began her nursing career, Melissa fell ill with lupus. It took years to recover from this autoimmune disorder. After moving to Georgia, Melissa attended a church event where a missionary came to speak about water, agriculture, poverty and corporate greed. The missionary had been to 149 countries. Her stories captivated Melissa, who became overwhelmed with a desire to help.

Melissa founded Life Beyond Water in 2017 as a way to promote clean water practices to ensure clean water for everyone on the planet. The organization’s mission is to provide relief, aid, support and education to areas without clean water and to develop the next generation of leaders  who will work for global water sustainability.

What inspires you to volunteer?

I have always had a passion for caring for people, for helping. It’s in my nature.

Tell us about your volunteer role with Life without Water.

I wear all the hats. I facilitate programs, make connections and network. I go on service trips and distribute water. I prefer to be “boots on the ground.” I want to be where the people are.

During the pandemic, I was called to shift gears from focusing on clean water. I began feeding people. We cooked food in my kitchen and distributed it to extended stay motels to serve at-risk people housebound because of the pandemic. We served over 122,000 people in six counties in Georgia. We received a USDA contract to prepare food and became an official food distribution center. We also provided over a million bottles of drinking water during the Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis.

After the pandemic, we partnered with a well building project in Ghana. I couldn’t personally attend this initiative for financial reasons, but I have since been to South Africa. Last year, we installed two more wells in Uganda as well as a 40,000 liter underground collection system. We have placed three fresh water wells in Ghana which serve over 1,500 people.

Melissa (left) with a teacher from Project Esperanza. /Courtesy Melissa Ellis

Today, we continue educating, advocating and helping ensure clean water not just locally but overseas. We are a very small organization. We do what we can.

We continue to do disaster relief wherever it’s needed. We raised money to deliver a million bottles of water to Jackson, Mississippi. This was an emergency situation, not a long-term solution. We have delivered 15 tractor-trailer loads of supplies related to not having clean water. We also celebrate the United Nations Water Day in communities that don’t have access to clean drinking water, including Flint, Michigan, where we distributed food, water and supplies.

I am most excited about our new initiative which is launching an after-school club for kids in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades. They say prisons are built based on the reading levels of 4th graders, so we decided to help change the narrative by giving kids from underserved communities the skills to create a better future. My aim is that these kids will be the change this world desperately needs. We need to develop a generation who will care and steward the water and other natural resources.

What inspired you to get started with this initiative?

The stories the missionary told about living conditions in some parts of the world left me with an aching heart. I made the difficult decision to leave my family behind for six months and travel to Haiti on a medical mission. It was there that I saw first-hand the dire living conditions people had to endure. The only source of water was filthy, and it was used for everything including cooking, drinking, bathing, cleaning and even in baby bottles. I was shocked to the core. I came home and founded Life Beyond Water in 2017. In 2019, we participated in our first disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. We distributed supplies, bottled drinking water and water filtration systems.

What are your long-term plans or goals for the organization?

My goal is to take the after-school program nationwide. We teach STEM, agriculture, water issues, solar, coding, entrepreneurship, finance, urban planning and so much more. There are already some great after school programs for middle and high schoolers, but this one is special because we are introducing kids to global issues at a young age.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

I love seeing the faces of the people we help. They are in desperate need of help and so grateful to receive it. We have completed a water project in the Ntonso-Kumasi M/A School in Ghana.

We go in, whether it’s domestic or abroad, and we see the desperation and the gratitude that pours out of them when they get the help they need. These people are desperate for things many of us take for granted, like clean water. They need help but they also need comfort. Seeing their faces light up, seeing the gratitude in their eyes, is just unbelievable. I am so honored to do what I do. I am truly living the dream. I am so blessed to be sharing this with my sons and daughter. My 23-year-old son went with us to Ghana last summer. He was named in a naming ceremony and experienced firsthand the love and gratitude of the people we serve.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

I’ve had to learn to run Life Beyond Water as a business. I currently don’t take a salary, but I still run it as a business. I’m learning that whatever we do has to be people first. People and our programs are at the heart of what we do. I’ve also learned that, as small as we are, our reach is finite. It’s all about building relationships and expanding our reach.

Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about.

These after school programs are possible and will continue to grow because of collaboration with several nationwide organizations that are primarily focused on child wellbeing. Our aim is to partner with these organizations and get this program into schools nationwide. I would love to start chapters in places we’ve served, such as Flint or Jackson, so we are packaging our after-school program so that anyone can use it. I hope this will encourage a lot of community activism. If you’ve had a water crisis, your community needs to be part of the solution because you know exactly what the real issues are.

Group team photo at Project Esperanza School in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, September 2023. /Courtesy Melissa Ellis

Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?

If not you, then who?

Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?

No matter what you’re trying to do, just start. Nothing is ever great at first. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Do what you’re led to do. Follow the breadcrumb trail. Greatness is about service. Life will help you develop your talents and gifts. Live in the now, every moment is a gift, go after it and do what pulls at your heart.

People often have great ideas and want to help but get caught in the swirl of building a nonprofit, they get caught up in how to get it funded and so forth. I invite you to consider what the impact is that you’re making Focus on that and you will succeed.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

You have to be a lifelong learner and a lifelong lover. You also have to take care of yourself. If you fill your own cup and your cup runneth over into a saucer, you can help people from that saucer.

Clean water is globally the most underrated issue we have. People aren’t educated enough about the water crisis to take a stand. We educate, and we empower. It’s our mission to provide clean water to the whole world. I believe that we have to prepare ourselves in the United States for more and more water emergencies. I also believe that any future wars will be about water, not oil.

Clean water is a basic human right that should not be controlled by a handful of corporations. Approximately 650 million people worldwide do not have access to clean, safe drinking water which affects not only their health but the entire economy of the area.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Melissa? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Jarmila Gorman