Stan Patyrak: Living Water International

hotos line the walls and desk in Stan Patyrak’s office in Southeast Portland, and each photo has a human story behind it. There are photos of children in El Salvador, India, Uganda and other countries from around the world with arms outstretched, receiving clean water as it pours over their hands like the blessing of life itself. These photos share the story of non-profit organization Living Water International, and that story is one of the hopes for a billion people around the world who are currently suffering from the global water crisis. Serving as Senior Director of Partnerships, and now also as Northwest Regional Representative at the newly opened Portland office. Patyrak continues that story of hope in conjunction with Living Water, as they serve the world’s poorest by helping to provide safe drinking water for those in need.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to work with Living Water?

I always felt called to put my hand on something that would help somebody else. About eight years ago, a friend of mine who works for Living Water showed me some photos that he had taken in Ethiopia, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was my introduction to the water crisis, and I immediately began to learn about how water impacts just about every other form of development. As I got to know Living Water more, it became the best story that I’ve ever heard. And eight years later, it’s still the best story I’ve ever heard.

Are poverty and water shortage synonymous? What’s the correlation?

Absolutely they are. We’re talking about one in seven people on the planet not having clean water. What we see is that no other development can really take place unless water access is first looked at.

In what way do you feel your experience as a photographer has made an impact on your role with Living Water? More specifically, what approach to photography do you take when photographing humans struggling with poverty?

I think that we’re drawn to hope, and that’s what drew me to Living Water. Yes, there are a billion people without access to clean water; yes it’s keeping people within a cycle of poverty. All of the statistics are true. But water can be a moment in time for a community where their story changes. When I consider an approach to photography, I hope that it shows hope over and over again, and that it’s a story that people want to enter into. I brought my love for photography to Living Water—our story is so visual. Photography is just a great way to share that story.

When did you decide to move to Portland?

About five years ago, our organization began to experience financial support out of the Northwest. I’ve definitely loved where I was born and raised, but was ready to get out of Houston. My family and I have always dreamed of living in another part of the US, specifically the Northwest, so there was an immediate connection to want to come and meet the people who were contributing to our work. I made that trip back and forth for about five years, and it was the trip from Portland to Hood River along the Gorge three years ago that did me in.

Is Portland receptive to the mission of Living Water?

We’ve seen that reception for the past five years. There’s definitely authenticity and longevity in our relationships here. I think that the city is very aware of global issues—there’s obviously a ton of non-profits that are based here. People really want to make a difference in the world. In a city where it rains all the time and there’s water everywhere, we want people to understand that there is a water crisis. We have an abundance of water, but there are a billion people that don’t. There are real practical solutions to making that story different for those people.

How do you go about implementing solutions to your goals—what types of projects does the organization take on?

Living Water operates in about 20+ countries around the world. We do so predominantly through training and equipping local teams to actually implement that work. So in Uganda for example, we have a strong team of Ugandan men and women who lead our work. They drill wells, repair wells, lead community-based hygiene, and implement sanitation. We’re well versed in many different water technologies: slow sand filtration, well drilling, well repair, rain catchment. Historically, Living Water has been drilling wells, and we’ve done that well. When needed—when it’s more technologically appropriate—we’ll do filtration or rain catchment.

Where does the technology come from?

A lot of that expertise exists within the organization stateside. One of the things that Living Water has done over the years is offer training in shallow well drilling and well repair, even in hygiene promotion, in an effort to work with other non-profits who maybe want to start implementing water projects. A billion people without water—Living Water is not going to solve the water crisis alone. In the countries where we work, however, the organization has trained locals that now know how to drill wells.

When you visit other countries where Living Water is working, what is it like being able to witness what your organization has accomplished?

It’s absolutely amazing. What’s been amazing is to revisit a community a year later, and a lot of these other developments—things like agriculture or education—end up springing out of the community on their own because life doesn’t revolve around a half-day walk for polluted water anymore. Mothers are able to stay home and care for their kids and educate their kids and earn an income. There’s water for crops and for agricultural projects. The health of the community improves. Life without water is not knowing what next week will look like for you—just knowing that tomorrow, you need to go find water to survive. Water really provides an opportunity for communities to consider a future. It’s a hopeful story.

What are the challenges that need to be overcome in order to bring water to geographically arid areas, and how are they overcome?

When we’re talking about drilling wells, what we understand is that the people are walking hours a day and gathering water that’s not safe. They might actually be walking over an underground aquifer that does have safe water—so really, the only way to tap into that is technology. When we talk about an entire geographical area without the water it needs, we start talking about the means to be able to scale operations. Living Water is on the ground in the countries in which we work, and we implement projects in order to provide for a billion people without water. But we need many more teams, much more equipment, to be able to go to scale to do that work.

So we’ve talked a bit about the scientific challenges in bringing water to these communities. Are there cultural challenges or geo-political difficulties in war-torn regions that you face bringing water to these communities?

Yes. There are ongoing challenges to projects being sustainable. Not just having water for a moment in time but making sure that water continues to flow—that requires the commitment and dedication of the organization, but it also requires the commitment and dedication of the communities that we’re working with. So what ends up happening is that when we start talking about sustainable water, the conversation shifts almost away from technology. We need the technology in order to provide water, but when we talk about sustainable water, all of a sudden we’re talking about a lot of education and a lot of social implementation with working alongside the community, realizing the strength and beauty and the will that already exist in the community.

  Are there areas that make it difficult or dangerous for your personnel?

Yes. This isn’t easy work for our teams, and dedicated men and women continue to work even when their own personal safety is put in jeopardy because they believe so much in the cause and the mission.

What are your main objectives as Senior Director of Partnerships at Living Water?

I have a partnership role and also a regional presence role. We work in partnerships in concert with water organizations to fulfill their goals, our goals, and really provide the most basic needs for communities. Out here in the Northwest, our reason for being here is to connect those who have given, are giving, and will give to the unbelievable work that’s happening all around the world because of their contribution. We really want to close that gap between when the donor gives, and their understanding of exactly what they’ve given to and the impact that’s made.

 How has the organization evolved in the period of time since you’ve been involved with it?

We’ve experienced a lot of growth. We have historically been a Houston organization. In the last five years, because of our partnership with the faith community and churches around the US, we’ve seen Living Water on the radar in more cities and more churches around the US. And so we’ve become more of a national organization. The Northwest is one of our first regional presences. About nine months ago we moved and established the office here. We’re here because of the support of churches and individuals in Portland.

How can others take action and get involved in the efforts to solve the water crisis?

You can give towards water projects and we’ll work very hard to prove the impact of your donation back to you so you’ll know what you’re giving towards. If you’re into endurance sports or marathons, you can actually run for water—it’s called Team Living Water. Corporations can get involved too. Again, as we’re really working hard to prove our impact to our donor base, a lot of companies see that as very encouraging for their work force. The work that they’re doing during the day can help to make these projects possible.

About The Author: Justin Fields