Hendley started the charity after traveling around the world as a break from school. During his travels, he saw how great the need for water is and it surprised him that no one was doing anything about it. So he came back to the states to do a fundraiser, then that started his journey into providing water.
From Yes Weekly Magazine, writer Ogi Overman talks about how Hendley got started.
“I began taking notice of this water crisis and don’t even know why,” said the 30 year old, “because nobody around me knew anything about it. I’d hear things like 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean water. I started researching it a little and found that more people die from [lack of potable] water than anything else, that malaria kills more people than bullets and that water kills more children than malaria, HIV/AIDS
and tuberculosis combined. Not only did I not know that but I didn’t know anybody who knew that.”
His curiosity and then his passions aroused, Hendley took it a step further, organizing an event designed to raise both awareness and funds. He dubbed it “Wine To Water,” a double entendre reversing the order of Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine for the marriage ceremony at Cana.
“My only skill set was as a bartender,” he said.
“There is nothing exceptional about me except that I knew how to create relationships with customers. So I had an event in a bar, with a DJ, mainly among people I knew in the service industry around Raleigh. But the response was overwhelming; we had maybe 150 people and raised over $6,000.”
Hendley knew he was onto something but still didn’t know exactly what it was, so he took the money to a large non-profit, Samaritan’s Purse, headed by Rev. Billy Graham’s son Rev. Franklin Graham, that has a long history of supporting humanitarian and charitable causes on a global scale. But rather than taking the money, they told him to keep it and instead offered him a job.
“I told them to send me to the worst place where I could be of most use,” said Hendley, “which at the time I thought would be Afghanistan. But something happened and they said they didn’t have anyone on the ground yet in Darfur, Sudan, and asked if I’d be willing to go. So six months after I’d had my first event in January 2004, here I found myself in Darfur.”
Hendley wound up spending a full year in what is arguably the most hopeless region on earth. To say it was a life-altering experience would be a gross understatement.
“During the year I was there, the Janjaweed militia, which are the Sudanese death squads, killed over 120,000 people,” he said somberly. “Not only do they mow down black African Muslims indiscriminately but they put the dead bodies into the wells, polluting the ground water and taking this most desperate resource that they need more than anything else. That was the first time I saw water used as a weapon, and it changed my view completely. Seeing those horrible things that could be done with water fueled my passion even more and solidified my involvement.”
During the next two years he decided to break away from Samaritan’s Purse and make Wine Into Water his life’s work. He gained 501(c)(3) status; met and married his wife Amber, who teaches special needs children at a community college in Boone; continued to raise funds through grants and private donors, wine-tasting events (often featuring him on guitar and vocals); and began developing ways to build cheaper and more efficient wells and water-filtration systems. But he also had another realization that his mission had taken on a new dimension, that it was now two-fold.
“My job is not just to try to fix the problem hands-on, but to make sure that people know that this is a problem,” he noted. “And part of the problem is that most people just don’t really know about it, they’re simply not aware of how bad it really is.”
Hendley does not believe that people simply don’t care — quite the opposite, in fact — but that there is no frame of reference in our society. He explained it with a simple example: “We might know what it’s like to be hungry or to have a debilitating disease or to be homeless. But anyone in this country, no matter how poor, whether you’ve lost loved ones or lost your job or are a bum on the street with nothing to your name, you can still walk into the nearest public restroom, turn on the tap and get clean water. We have no idea what it’s like to walk four miles every day to get water and know that it still might kill your child when you bring it back. It’s not that we in Western culture are purposely ignoring it; it’s just not something we think about because it’s something we’ve never had to face.”