Liberian-born teen takes on global water access

At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, water activists Jenneh Corkern, left, 17, and Grace Clipson, 15. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)
At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, water activists Jenneh Corkern, left, 17, and Grace Clipson, 15. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

“More than 840,000 people die each year from water-related illnesses,” says Jenneh Corkern, 17, when I ask her why she cares about global water issues.

That statistic is pretty abstract for many of us — a global tragedy that befalls people in far-off and desperate places. But for Corkern, who spent the first seven years of her life in a Liberian orphanage, it’s a lived reality.

“At night it would rain and we would use water from the drainpipes to make food, wash the dishes or drink,” says Corkern, who explains that the only other option for drinkable water was miles away from the orphanage and required a long walk. “We just drank it because it was water, and it was healthy for us.”

But it wasn’t healthy water. When Corkern arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 2005 after being adopted by a local family, her stomach was full of parasites. A decade later Corkern — who still takes medication and adheres to a special diet designed for her compromised digestive system — has become a water-rights activist.

She spent the past year enrolled in Teens Take Action — a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program that trains youth to advocate for issues they care about. Through the program Corkern teamed up with fellow participant Grace Clipson, and together they’ve raised $900 for Water1st International — a Seattle-based nonprofit that works on clean-water projects in Ethiopia, Honduras, India and Bangladesh.

Corkern and Clipson have held bake sales (featuring sugar cookies in the shape of water droplets) and penny drives. They’ve also created a slideshow and a short video on global water issues and have presented it at their schools (Kent Mountain View Academy and Holy Names Academy, respectively).

The two hope to reach their goal of $2,500 with more fundraising in the coming year.

“It’s so inspiring to be around young people who care and want to help,” says Marla Smith-Nilson, founder and executive director of Water 1st. “I get a bigger boost out of kids doing a bake sale … or some kid [who] walks in with their allowance, than any big check that we’ve ever gotten.”

I first met Smith-Nilson when I was reporting on water issues in Ethiopia in 2008, and I know the organization’s incredible power to inspire action. They now hold fundraisers in Seattle, Portland and Chicago and have raised millions of dollars to fund 1,200 water projects around the world.

Marla Smith-Nilson and Mari Tuji in Kelecho Gerbi, Ethiopia. Before a water system was built by Seattle Nonprofit Water 1st, Mari walked four hours each day to collect water for her family. (Courtesy Photo)
Marla Smith-Nilson and Mari Tuji in Kelecho Gerbi, Ethiopia. Before a water system was built by Seattle Nonprofit Water 1st, Mari walked four hours each day to collect water for her family. (Courtesy Photo)

But Corkern’s involvement with Water1st is uniquely powerful.

Her experience straddles two worlds and it inspires people (like Clipson, who says she chose water as her issue in large part because of Corkern).

But sharing that experience is something Corkern herself is just getting used to. She’s included photos of herself as an orphan — barefoot in a torn dress — in the presentation she does about water. She also talks about her health problems, though she’s not always sure how her peers might respond.

“I feel really scared that maybe people won’t care, or they’ll think I’m making up the story,” says Corkern. She’s sitting on a bench at The Gates Foundation Visitor Center, just feet from a display describing long-distance walks for water not unlike those at her orphanage.

But the past year has taught her that it’s all worth the risk.

“You don’t have to get everyone to listen to your story,” says Corkern, who plans to travel to Liberia to help build wells (and locate her family) after college. “But that one person who does listen to your story can make an impact.”

To hear more about her story, or how you can make an impact on global water access, Corkern and Clipson will be presenting at the Teen Action Fair, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Gates Foundation Visitor Center. The event is open and free to the public.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

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