Did you know that the average age of a homeless person in America is 9 years old? Did you know that one out of four homeless individuals is a veteran? Did you know that on any given night, here in America, over 500,000 homeless adults and children are left to fend for themselves because of lack of shelter?
Homelessness affects more and more people every day. No one is immune to the threat of being homeless. In fact, did you know that most American families are one paycheck away from being destitute? Now, more than ever we have to open our eyes and our hearts to those less fortunate than we are. I’d like to open your eyes to one story of a remarkable woman, who has done just that. A woman, I am fortunate enough to call a friend.
Stories of perseverance and courage have always intrigued me. Everyone has jumped a few hurdles or two to survive. At times, most of us have found ourselves depressed and disillusioned with life, perhaps fighting an uphill battle. At one time or another, some of us may have lost faith in ourselves, our lives or our fellow man. We can all agree that struggles, big and small, are part of the human condition. However, how each of us deals with them and how we find the will to overcome them can often be based on the faith we have in ourself, in God (Universe), and our tenacity to overcome.
This is a story about a woman who has overcome one of the biggest hurdles facing many people today, crushing poverty with the threat of homelessness snapping at her heels. Not only has she broken free from a system that, more often than not, keeps the weakest among us down, but she also has turned into a superwoman champion of the underdog. A champion for those who have lost everything, except maybe their will to survive. Her name is Elena Davis, and she is a champion of Hope, a champion of Love, and a champion of Dreams.
If I am to believe that everything happens for a reason, her case is one that solidifies this belief. Elena was born into a family that for generations held the wrong end of the stick. Her family shuffled their meager belongings from one project house to the next, moving constantly. She and her sibling’s education was secondary, with the need to eat being more pressing. In the 8th grade, Elena dropped out of school. She was simply too tired, too stressed and too hungry to focus on her education. She lost her desire to remain in class, even though for most of her school years, the lunch that the various schools provided was her only source of nourishment.
A few years later, when Elena was 15 she landed a job at the pizza parlor where her brother worked. Finally, Elena had sustenance to fuel her dreams. She read voraciously and worked hard to educate herself without the tutelage that most kids her age took for granted. She felt a strong need to not only do more but also earn more to help provide for her family.
One day, a regular customer at the pizza joint approached Elena. He suggested that she consider fashion modeling. This customer was integral in setting something in motion that changed Elena’s destiny. He introduced her to key people working in the fashion industry in Los Angeles. Elena, like most young models, was told to head to Europe to develop her portfolio, but how does a girl with no means do such a thing?
Elena, careful to hide the shame of poverty that enveloped her approached her Los Angeles agent and asked for help. Her agent agreed to advance her money for a plane ticket to Paris. She packed her one bag full of Salvation Army thrift store clothing and told her family that she would return with money so that they would finally be able to settle down in a safe community, have enough food and have financial security.
In Europe, Elena quickly became a star in the fashion world. New York also opened their arms wide. Magazine editorials, advertising campaigns, you name it, she was the “face.” Elena made good on her promise and secured a home for her mother and siblings with the wages she earned as a model.
In her new life, she still held on tight to the secret of her past. She put on a brave face and never said a word to anyone about her family history of living in poverty. No one knew the hardship she lived through before her days as a model. She never shared the pain and shame she carried with her.
One day, the master of fate stepped into Elena’s life again, and she found herself on the arm of her very own Prince Charming. Initially, Elena didn’t share anything about her past with her husband-to-be, but after some soul searching, she revealed the truth. Her fiancé happened to be a son of one of America’s wealthiest families and Elena, well, she was from the “other side of the tracks,” so to speak. She wasn’t sure if he would make a quick retreat after she confided in him, but he didn’t. Instead, just like Cinderella, Elena ended up marrying her prince.
Through the years, her secret about her family’s struggles remained a private matter, with very few people knowing what she and her family had been through. Until one day, three children later, when Elena found herself sitting at a stoplight on a sweltering day in Houston. A homeless woman approached Elena’s car. Elena had some money at the ready in anticipation of what surely would be the woman’s request. To Elena’s surprise, the woman asked her if she had any water. As Elena handed over her personal bottle of water, everything that happened in her life synchronized into a life-changing epiphany.
Water, the life-giving source that feeds our bodies, hydrates our minds and cleanses off the day. Water, that if you are homeless, you do not have access to. Water, a sip that can mean life or death for a person on the street. Water that we all take for granted is that simple something that makes all the difference in the world.
Finally, after years of silence, Elena shared her secret past. She confided in her children and her friends. And, shortly after that set out on a mission, her mission that surely the universe divinely set up for her. A mission of hydration.
I Am Waters was Born
I am homeless. I am in need. I am suffering. I am worthy of a second chance. I am a human being. I am love. I am hope. I am a dream. Hydrating the homeless, both physically and spiritually, became Elena’s destiny.
Why the Message on the Bottle?
Each I AM WATERS bottle has been designed with a simple, yet beautiful message. Love. Hope. Dream. Peace. I was wondering if these beautiful words on the bottle had any significance for the receiver. Professor of Sociology at UCLA, William Roy, Ph.D., shed some light on this for me.
“When Elena had the inspiration for I Am Waters, she not only had the stroke of genius to combine physical and spiritual hydration for the homeless, she had the commitment to do it right. Doing it right meant many things, from adopting a gorgeous artistic theme for their public image, to recruiting supermodels to entice people to her fundraising luncheon, persuading an effective board of directors, and mobilizing a broad set of shelter partners. Many effective leaders would have begun in those ways, but she went further, seeking out expertise to advise her on how effective they were at reaching their goals–people like Dave Buck of Healthcare for the Homeless in Houston, Aline Wilson, a veteran fundraiser with contacts in the world of philanthropy, and myself. She came to UCLA seeking social science knowledge about dehydration issues among the homeless. After I AM WATERS got on its feet, I helped design an interview schedule to hear from the homeless and those delivering water what they thought about I AM WATERS. I had no doubt that the homeless had problems finding suitable drinking water. After all, where do the rest of us get water. We get it from home or or buy it in bottles. But if you have no home or money, while public water fountains are going the way of the public pay phones, there is going to be a problem, especially in hot cities like Houston. But frankly, I was a bit skeptical about the inspirational words on the bottles.”
“Elena did most of the interviews herself, and it was clear that not only did the water mean a great deal to the homeless, but so did the fact that the bottles were created especially for them, many of whom feel unwanted and unnoticed, but that should have been obvious. How much do many of the rest of us pay for bottles of water that have labels we like and that fit our lifestyle? What was surprising was what we learned from talking to the shelter partners and other people who passed out bottles, who reported that passing out the bottles with inspirational words opened up doors that had been closed. Police serving the homeless, for example, reported that people who had been suspicious and remote welcomed the bottles as a gesture of friendship and trust. Again, if we think a bit, that should not entirely surprise us. Sharing a liquid is a universal symbol of rapport, whether sharing a drink or coffee, or participating in one of the religious rituals that involve liquid–communion, seder, or tea ceremony.”
“We have also begun to review the scientific literature on homelessness and the health consequences of dehydration. It turns out that there is practically none. When you do a search for academic research on dehydration and health, it is all about the poor in other parts of the world, not in the U.S. Of course, when you talk to emergency room physicians, EMTs, and other folks who provide healthcare for the homeless, they act like it’s a no brainer. They say, not only dehydration itself, but dehydration-related illnesses like diabetes, substance abuse, and even mental illness are rampant. We have many more studies in the works. These studies will not only help I AM WATERS refine their operations, but they will also provide the documentation needed by foundations who support projects like I AM WATERS that alleviate the homelessness scourge that plagues our country.”
I AM WATERS IS PAYING IT FORWARD
So far Elena and I AM WATERS have been able to hydrate the homeless in four states. I AM WATERS has been linked with 31 shelters across the southwest. The homeless individuals that receive these precious bottles of water cherish them. In fact, for most, these bottles are the single most beautiful thing they can call their own.
As one of her Supermodel Ambassadors, I have been fortunate to join her at the Annual Fundraising Luncheons held in Austin and Houston, Texas. I am in awe of her. The stamina that she has and that beautiful heart of hers is a sight to behold.
At the last luncheon I attended, I asked Elena if she could spare some time to answer a few questions for me:
Q: You have been going strong for four years now. During this time, what have you learned about yourself? What have you learned about others?
A: I have learned that I’m smarter and stronger than I thought. What I have learned about others is that no matter how rich or poor a person is, we all are insecure by nature. We all just want to be loved and accepted.
Q: I find it remarkable that you deliver the water (with help of course). Why do you feel the need to be present when the water is distributed?
A: I feel a strong sense of responsibility to our donors and the homeless that we serve. It’s a level of commitment to all involved that makes I AM WATERS what it is …
Q: What is your one wish that has yet to be fulfilled?
A: I pray that I live my life according to God’s will. The one thing that I think about often, and I know will bring me the greatest sense of freedom and peace is that when it is my time to pass on to the next world, I want to have lived my life with love, and I want to have helped as many people as I could. I also hope to have learned to love myself, too.
Q: What would you tell your younger self if you had the chance?
A: Wake Up! Wake Up!
“Our goal is to enrich the lives of America’s homeless by providing a continuous source of fresh, clean bottled water, delivered with a daily, inspirational message of hope, love and a sense of belonging to the greater community” – Elena Davis
Read more about I AM WATERS Foundation.
Read more about Elena’s remarkable story, visit her personal blog.
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