Digging wells in Nepal teaches professor lessons about service, leadership

Before 2003, Doc Hendley was just your run-of-the-mill tattooed, guitar-playing bartender. Then he heard about the critical water shortages affecting many areas of the world, and he decided to do something about it.

Stepping out of his comfort zone, the 25-year-old Hendley went to war-ravaged Darfur to dig wells, putting his life at risk to help bring water to Sudanese people in the midst of a genocide. He was untrained, did not speak the language and had to dodge bullets from militia members, but he persevered, eventually starting the nonprofit organization Wine to Water, which helps people in water-poor communities around the world build water systems.

When Wingate’s Dr. Brandy Clemmer read Hendley’s book and heard him speak in the fall of 2013, as part of a University-wide reading experience, she was moved.

“I was just so intrigued by Hendley’s story,” the assistant professor of sport sciences says. “He was almost like a rebel. He wasn’t born to do this. He stumbled upon it, and when he did, he made such a huge impact globally.”It took a few years, but Clemmer eventually had her “wine to water” moment too. Last fall she traveled across the world to dig some wells in Nepal with Hendley’s organization, and she came home with a deeper perspective on servant leadership – a transformation she says couldn’t have happened were it not for opportunities afforded her at Wingate.

An opportunity to serve at the University prepared her to make that life-changing trek to the Himalayas.

Learning to lead

In 2013, fired up by Hendley’s story, Clemmer was ready to save the world. But although she daydreamed about bringing clean water to those in need, she didn’t immediately hop a plane to a Wine to Water work site. There was work to do closer to home first.

Dr. Travis Teague, dean of the School of Sport Sciences, saw glimpses of leadership ability in Clemmer that perhaps the professor didn’t even know were there. He tapped Clemmer to head Wingate’s School of Sport Sciences Leadership Academy, a program designed to give students opportunities to hone their leadership skills while helping out in the community. By 2016, Clemmer was taking groups to volunteer at Victory Junction, a camp for children with serious medical conditions, and to help residents in poverty-stricken Gary, West Virginia.

The Leadership Academy helps students learn to lead through service to others. It had a similar effect on Clemmer. “My heart just swelled with the whole purpose of serving others, being part of a bigger picture,” she says.

While she was figuring out the best leadership practices to share in the Academy, she heard about a WINGS (Wingate International Grant for Students) opportunity for faculty. Her Wine to Water dream suddenly seemed achievable. And not only would it help the water-starved residents of Madi, Nepal, but Clemmer would be able to bring skills back to her University job.

“I thought, I would love to take this opportunity to dive into Wine to Water and see how they lead,” Clemmer says. “How do they lead in crises? How do you go to a third-world country as an American, as a Westerner, and lead?” She applied for the grant, got it, and finally found herself headed to Nepal, five years after reading Hendley’s book.

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“I always think that there’s your plan and then there’s God's plan,” Clemmer says. “I don't think the Wine to Water would have ever happened if I wouldn't have realized the value of service. I think life took me to Wine to Water, then to Leadership Academy director and then back to Wine to Water.”

Teague says Clemmer’s penchant for servant leadership was already evident, especially in her work as clinical coordinator of athletic training programs, making her a good fit for the Leadership Academy. He says the idea behind the Academy – for which students must be nominated by faculty, meet academic criteria and undergo an interview process – is to equip them to start leading sooner rather than later.

“My philosophy is that our students are going to be leaders at some point within their careers,” Teague says. “What I thought we would do is try to get them in a position where they could develop those leadership skills while they are here at Wingate.

“We put it (the academy) together from the sense of a classroom where you learn theory, but also the experiential side where we can go out and apply that theory in real-world settings, while at the same time being able to help those people that we are involved with. So, we feel like it’s a win-win-win situation: for the University, for the students and for the folks that we have the privilege to go out and work with.”

Problem solving the Nepalese way

Once in Nepal, Clemmer was again pumped about well-digging and seeing Wine to Water leaders in action. What she found in a tiny mountain village an eight-hour ride from Kathmandu was the realization that true leadership means gaining the trust of community members and working alongside them, their way.

“I realized very quickly that it wasn’t about me,” she says. “It was about the community; it was about their buy-in. It was about sustainable, life-changing water that we take for granted. I watched the community lead us in the way that we did things.”

Rather than digging individual wells in the village north of Chitwan National Park, the goal of the project was to pump water from one common well up a mountain to a reservoir so that it would then flow back down via a gravity-fed distribution system. Each home would have a tap, eliminating the need for villagers to walk an hour or more each time they needed to fill a two-liter bottle.

Tasked with helping dig a five-foot hole for the tank, Clemmer says her first thought was, Where’s the backhoe?, followed by, Can I get a wheelbarrow?

Instead, she and a villager named Sangeeta worked side-by-side filling rice bags with rocks and tossing them out away from the hole. Although they didn’t speak the same language, the common goal created a bond that Clemmer now treasures.

“If I had had my modern equipment, I never would have had that communication with Sangeeta,” she says. “The nonverbal, the laughing, that relationship that we built by slinging that rice bag would not have been there.” She learned the villagers’ phrase for big rock, “Ṭhūlō ḍhuṅgā,” and tried her best to master their equipment, a tool similar to a pickaxe used to move dirt into a bowl held with the foot.

She could think of a hundred more-efficient ways to move the dirt but soon realized that doing it the Nepalese way was the point.“There was some frustration because there is a better way to do this, a more efficient way, in my mind, but not for them. That’s their normal and we had to respect that,” Clemmer says. “How they go about solving problems is totally different than the way you solve problems. But how do you work together? That’s the biggest thing – working together to find the end goal.”

‘Grace and gratitude’

While digging wells in Nepal, Clemmer found more than just water.

She traveled to Asia in an effort to help those with a very basic need – one that few Westerners have to worry about. But that doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t beneficial to her.

Clemmer, who gets emotional when she talks about her work with Wine to Water, says totally immersing herself in a different culture gave her a new international family and a deeper appreciation for the simple joys of life.

“In search for that leadership, what I found was what I like to call ‘grace and gratitude,’” she says. “You know when you're over there you’re very thankful for what you have. And you give other folks and you give situations the grace that you get every day.”

The work also made Clemmer re-evaluate why serving others matters and how she can communicate that to her students.“I think a lot of times we do service projects for us, for our feel-good,” she says. “I wanted to emulate what Doc had done. I wanted to go and make a difference, but when I got over there it was kind of like, ‘Hey, reality check.’”

Teague says it’s that kind of high-impact practice – deep and meaningful – that Wingate wants to give to students.

“Really to help and get engaged, that’s what we’re trying to do, as a school and as an institution, trying to engage people – you know, faith, knowledge, service,” Teague says. “We’re trying to serve in a way that’s more than superficial. That’s got some arms and legs to it, when you really get to it in the depth that we need to. The deeper level of engagement is where you get the true benefit of service.”

He says that having Clemmer share her experience with students multiplies the impact and helps prepare them for their next opportunity to serve.

“To be able to bring that back, put those skills, those experiences, in the classroom, to tell those stories, where they are real-life, first-hand experiences, I think it is invaluable,” Teague says.

Clemmer is sharing what she’s learned to help prepare the Leadership Academy for a service trip to Gary the first weekend in April.

“I'm a firm believer in servant leadership in general,” she says. “You lead by serving; you lead by looking at the bigger picture; you lead by knowing it’s not about you. It’s about whomever you’re working with. There’s a bigger picture, whether we are serving the homeless or serving as an athletic trainer, our patients. There is you and there is the bigger picture.”