As a real estate broker, Nick Jordan (picture left) knows a bit about the value of land, but it wasn’t until he traveled to Africa almost ten years ago that he discovered that land can yield a commodity beyond price. As the founder and CEO of Wells of Life, Jordan was inspired by a visit to Uganda, the east-central African country which cradles the headwaters of the mighty Nile River. While there, moved by conditions in the rural areas of this country, he decided to take his business acumen and his Christian faith and mix them with water. The result over the last seven years has been a steady outpouring of charity, compassion and, most importantly, life.
Founded in 2009, Wells of Life has one purpose—to underwrite access to fresh water for the poor of Uganda. By funding the drilling process, drilling equipment and construction and maintenance of the finished wells, this organization, headquartered in Mission Viejo, CA, is guaranteeing clean-running, fresh-tasting, life-giving water for hundreds of thousands of Ugandans—and in the process inviting folks stateside to immerse themselves in mercy and love which Wells of Life has tapped into with its well projects.
Catholic Business Journal spoke with Nick Jordan about his experiences in Uganda, his desire to see Wells of Life spill over into the lives of American families and business leaders, and how the Wells of Life program serves as a model in efficient and heartfelt Christian outreach.
Catholic Business Journal (CBJ): How did a California real estate broker who immigrated from Ireland get involved in fundraising for water wells in Uganda in the first place?
Nick Jordan (NJ): I had been involved for five years in fundraising for schools because I am a schoolteacher by trade while I was in Ireland before I immigrated. I loved the whole idea about enlightening minds and inspiring kids and giving them a love for language, learning and whatever it happened to be—science or math or what have you—and thereby giving children the tools that they would be able to use to create a life for themselves.
But once I traveled to Africa it was a shock. There were schools in Africa I was involved in and many others I visited that didn’t have access to running water. I found it so hard to fathom that you could build a school, or church for that matter, and not have running water—and Uganda is one of the most Catholic countries in Africa. In fact it’s one of the most Christian country with 86 percent Christians, about 41 percent Catholic. It has the same population as California, about 40 million people.
During my visit, here I’m seeing schools in Uganda that don’t have an equal number of boys and girls. Why? It wouldn’t have been obvious to a fellow like me who turns on the faucet and water comes out or jumps in the shower in the morning and flushes the toilet and washes the car and puts water in the dog’s bowl.
None of this was obvious until I was told the girls who should be in school at this time are hauling water because there’s no clean water source nearby. So the girls have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and once they’re strong enough to carry a jerry can that’s what they’re going to have to do.
CBJ: Why did you move from Ireland to America?
NJ: I had four wonderful years of teaching in Dublin and, like many people in the 1980s, I soon found unemployment and high taxation led me to the opportunity to emigrate. It’s a funny old story—most of us in Ireland would have been familiar with old American TV shows so we viewed America as represented by TV shows such as Dallas, The Brady Bunch, Chips and Starsky & Hutch. I immigrated to Houston, TX, in 1986, thinking everything was going to be like the set of Dallas, and we obviously knew afterwards that that wasn’t the case.
CBJ: Then you moved from Texas to California?
NJL: Around that time the economy of Texas was dependent on oil, and I was in Houston and the little employment I could find I had finished. I had a dear teaching colleague who had friends in California. I leveraged “me Irish brogue” to talk my way into a little way of getting a start in California and so I moved there in 1987.
It’s great to see things come full circle. The family that helped me in 1987 was the O’Connor family. One member of that family, Colleen O’Connor is a wonderful volunteer at our Wells of Life, now almost 30 years later. God places people in our path and we never know if we’re going to see them in a year or 30 years from now. At any rate, that was the family that put me in the right direction in Orange County, CA.
CBJ: Were you working as a teacher at this point?
NJ: No, I never taught in America. I wanted my slice of the American pie, the American dream, an opportunity. I realized that America doesn’t pay teachers here any better than we do in Ireland, so education was not what I chose to set my trajectory on. I was another immigrant looking for an opportunity. It’s the old story that sometimes you can become an overnight success after a decade.
It seemed to take several years but my chosen profession became the real estate world, and I got into it in the early 1990s, which was a good time for real estate. It was very good to me because I was fortunate with the timing. After the usual series of odd jobs and doing just about anything to stay alive, I did enter the real estate profession and by 2000 I opened my own business in Leguna Beach, CA.
CBJ: Did you become a success at that point?
NJ: I had a good decade of real estate success and found the opportunity that many before me have, which rewards hard work with success. I loved the real estate world because it gave the opportunity of having flexibility and freedom at the same time that I was serving clients’ needs especially with real estate.
During this time, reasonably early on, in 2005, I connected with Ireland again, which came in the form of a phone call from another teaching colleague who introduced me to the charity in Ireland that was building schools in Uganda. That is now considered the phone call that started the series of events that today culminated in Wells of Life.
The work we do started with a phone call from Ireland, which introduced me to a charity in Ireland called Fields of Life. This group basically built schools and equipped them with what was needed. Being a former teacher, I found an easy connection to make with this charity. I could see how education would benefit children. That basically was in 2005.
So I moved on through successful real estate years as we all had in those times, and each year we asked a group of friends and family, including many clients, to fundraise each year for a school.
CBJ: What part did your faith play at this time in your work fundraising for Fields of Life?
NJ: At the time I was not a strong Christian or living my faith. I was doing it because it seemed like the right thing to do. I was brought up by parents, who modeled service over self; so I suppose I was falling back a little bit on how I was raised. Irish people are generous and they serve and take care of each other, and I didn’t even think about it. Raising funds and building schools didn’t seem any great stretch of imagination because that was how I was brought up.
CBJ: Can you think of an example of how your parents modeled that sense of service for you as a child?
NJ: The farming community I grew up in was a community that knew, if a need existed, people would willingly and without prompting go and take care of each other. It was a closely-knit community where you typically didn’t have to ask for help—it was just forthcoming because that was how people took care of each other. I came from a village of about 300 people, a very small community.
One of the things you’re told in Ireland is not to be too loud or too proud, to not be the guy who sticks out his chest or you’ll be brought back to earth really quickly, whether in the local pub or what. So I’ve never tried to make it about me. My parents modeled that for me as well.
CBJ: How did your upbringing shape your work in fundraising?
NJ:I was born in Wexford, Ireland, into a farming family, the oldest of five kids, and lived in an old farmhouse that was built somewhere in the late 1800s. It wasn’t furnished with modern day conveniences. For the first four years of my life we didn’t have running water. One of my first memories is walking with my mother to a spring well, which was our water source.
As a child, I am remember my mother leaving down two buckets to rest while she brought that water home to the farmhouse for our daily needs. Of course, I didn’t think much of it; it was the way things were, but it was one of the earliest childhood memories I have, remembering my mother hauling water and how physically demanding that was on her.
I had a lovely upbringing as a child; I grew up in the 1960s and received a wonderful amazing Catholic education like so many before me that set me on a path to become a schoolteacher. I went from the country to the big city as the migration often happens, and got a teaching degree in English from University College in Dublin. I had a bachelor degree in education and became a young teacher in the school system and loved every bit of it, to be in a classroom teaching kids.
CBJ: How did your Catholic upbringing shape your sense of service as a business leader?
NJ: I should definitely give credit where credit is due, and the nuns who taught me were the servants who modeled a no-nonsense approach to filling a need and serving, especially at a time when there was so much crap given out about the Catholic Church—and there was plenty of blame to go around.
Never in my opinion should the wrongs done have had the right to wash out the incredible unselfish efforts of so many hundreds and thousands of Catholic priests, brothers, sisters and laity. What I received in my early years was one of the greatest educations that anyone could receive, which was a Catholic education.
The nuns would help us understand we were blessed, privilege and had so much, even though we didn’t think we had that much. We had health, love, shelter and opportunity to practice our faith. The nuns were instrumental in casting a broader viewpoint to my reckoning and opened up to me the fact that there were parts of the world where you didn’t have the kinds of privileges we enjoyed.
The old saying goes that when it comes to learning, there’s more caught than taught, and I definitely caught the sense of service from an early stage from the nuns. I learned that you don’t make a big fuss about it, but if there is a need to take care of, go take care of it.
CBJ: How had you returned to the Christian faith?
NJ: In 2007, I was at a point in my life where everything I thought I had accomplished as a business person and a married man fell apart. I went through a divorce and a real estate recession and it laid me on the flat of my back. At that point I made the pivotal decision, and thank God it saved me, I fell on my knees and accepted the Lord Jesus as my personal savior and surrendered. I realized I was going to deal with issues that I might not survive if I didn’t realize that miracles were available, salvation was possible and God’s love and power would carry me through anything.
That was where I was then, a guy who was born, raised, baptized and educated Catholic; that same guy fell into the seduction of wealth and privilege and having made a good successful living in the U.S. perhaps didn’t think he needed much of anything. I found out very quickly what you can make you can lose very quickly. That was a defining moment in my life that I always look back on and thank God for, because when I was brought to me knees, God was there.
CBJ: How did this experience lead you to Africa?
NJ: As I said, I’d been involved in fundraising for about five years prior to the demise of my career and of course I wasn’t the only person in California or America hard hit and hard done by a brutal recession. But it ushered in the opportunity to go to Africa, specifically Uganda, and to come face to face with poverty in a way I had never before witnessed.
God and the Holy Spirit specifically moved my heart to do something and view one of the Corporal Works of Mercy, which obviously all of us at Wells of Life consider to be critical. Without water you last for about a week and that will mark the end of your journey on earth.
CBJ: Why did you decide to focus your efforts on sourcing fresh water?
NJ: Even though I had been involved in raising funds for schools and interfaced with Fields of Life, even at that time I had a sort of superficial view of all the need that existed for education, for food, for shelter and water. I saw all of this first and only superficially until I traveled to Uganda in 2008. For two weeks, every single moment of my visit served to have a very far-reaching effect.
If you buy a blue car, you start realizing there are a lot of blue cars on the road; so too, when I went to Uganda I spent two weeks traveling through 1,800 miles with the Fields of Life team and visited 12 schools. I attended grand openings of schools and that sort of thing, and every single place I went all I could see were people carrying water, women carrying water on their heads, 40 pound containers, for miles on end. I was seeing young girls walking with their mothers.
The “A-ha!” moment that I choose to see as the Holy Spirit prompting me was seeing those women. The sight took me right back instantly to my upbringing as a four year old child walking with my mother carrying water. It was to me a road to Damascus moment, and I felt like I got knocked on my you-know-what.
CBJ: Describe the setting of that “Road to Damascus” moment.
NJ: I was standing at the site of a school in Uganda while it was being commissioned. The school was dedicated to my late sister, who I lost to cancer in 2000. I’m standing at some distance from the large gathering and I realize the school is only a couple miles from the source of the historic Nile. That’s when I had that moment of reflection: Without water life doesn’t exist. That’s basically when Wells of Life was founded; it was brought to existence in that moment. There are many great organizations like Fields of Life, and they’re all doing a tremendous job putting in schools, bringing in education, but the more profound and pivotal need was for fresh water.
CBJ: Did you see this as an opportunity or as a calling—or both?
NJ: I’m not different from anyone else; I’m certainly no genius. But I felt that I should do something about water and I felt it in my soul as if it was planted there by the Holy Spirit. Water is mentioned so many times in the Bible from Genesis through to Revelation. Without water there is no life. I like to say that lack of water is the taproot of poverty. I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it another ten thousand times before I die. Lack of water keeps people in prison to poverty.
CBJ: Putting aside the question of the labor involved, what’s wrong with the water that the Ugandan villagers haul from distant wells?
NJ: If you have to haul water, then most of the time what’s being hauled is water already infected, probably taken from the surface pond that has been visited that morning by livestock. So it’s full of poisonous organisms, which a mother knows is eventually going to kill her children. What a life decision to have to make—that you’re going to give basically poison to your children simply because there is no other choice open. That’s poverty, the greatest social injustice of our time in my opinion.
CBJ: Why is there a water crisis in Uganda in the first place?
NJ: The tragedy in so many parts of Africa, such as Uganda, is that 40 percent of the people lack access to water not because there is no water. Uganda is not an arid country; the water is there. The tragedy is that the water in Uganda is less than 50 feet away from children dying on the cold earth in miserable circumstance from the many diseases prevalent by drinking infected water.
CBJ: How does Wells of Life work in terms of funding and organization?
NJ: On November 28, 2008, I was standing near the source of the Nile while that school was being commissioned in honor of my sister. That, in effect, was the day on which I founded Wells of Life. On that day I made a commitment to bring a thousand water wells to a thousand communities in Uganda.
The idea behind Wells of Life was to take one country and narrow it down from there to where we could focus our attention as an organization in showing that you can change the entire world and everything in it for a community by providing access to clean water.
CBJ: What were the practical steps you took to establish Wells of Life?
NJ: I simply went about reaching out to people and building a board at Wells of Life. But even before I left Africa, I spent maybe half a day in Uganda with a yellow pad and fountain pen and wrote and wrote and wrote. But it didn’t feel like I was writing, and thought after thought arrived. I was going to use water and a little organization called Wells of Life to inspire people right across the board to join together in being of service. At the heart and soul of Wells of Life, it is a service organization that provides acts of mercy.
We’re instruments of the gospel, putting the gospel work into action. When Jesus tells us “When I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” we try without browbeating anyone to put an action to what Jesus told us to do—to serve the poor, the least of our brothers. I often think about the miracle of the loaves and fishes. We figured whatever we had, we were guided by the belief that water is a basic human right, and the belief that you can provide water to these people because it’s already there; it just needs to be accessed.
CBJ: How has Wells of Life grown?
NJ: Over the years of 2010-12, Wells of Life moved slowly through the process of creating a board and a vision and implementing it. How can we, in this vision, unite our families, schools, churches, business people and other individuals? In other words, how can we take a team approach to attacking this problem of poverty which has a taproot called lack of water?
I truly believe that, in all social justice, there are as many blessings received by the giver as by the receiver. For example, with a family donating for a well, there are as many blessings received in giving a water well as there are for the community that receives the water. It’s not a joke that it is better to give than receive.
I have hundreds of stories of people who have had their lives transformed by giving and seeing the unbelievable effects that a water well provides and how they get embraced with the love of that community when they get to go and visit it. So we created an opportunity to provide a water well. A water well is no different than an instrument that brings the available water to the surface and let it be accessed.
Every year we’ve grown by approximately 30 percent. Our first well was drilled in February 2010. So we went from February 2010 to November 2016, and this year we’re going to drill 65 wells. That’s a whopping number because that brings water to 65,000 lives.
CBJ: And how many wells has Wells of Life drilled since 2010?
NJ: We reached well number 235 last week.
CBJ: How does Wells of Life break the mold when it comes to service organizations?
NJ: Wells of Life drills water wells and brings water to the surface because we have a very powerful fundraising organization. We raise funds for our overhead—and of course every organization has overhead—we raise funds for our overhead separately and independently of our donors’ gifts for a water well.
One hundred percent of the funds we receive for a water well—and a well costs $6,000—100 percent of that $6,000 goes to provide the water, the well, and to maintain the well. One hundred percent of donations go to provide this very measurable form of life. So it’s not any more complicated than that.
CBJ: How does Wells of Life fund its overhead if not through donations?
NJ: We have a Legacy Gift program by which we invite our donors and supporters to make a five-year committed Legacy Gift, which funds our overhead. The Legacy Gift allows me or any of our people that work to raise funds for the wells to take a dollar from a child, to look that child straight in the eye and tell that child, “One hundred percent of your money is going to bring water to another child in Uganda.” It means we’re being good stewards with what we’ve been given responsibility to do.
CBJ: What’s the biggest challenge in funding?
NJ: The biggest challenge is connecting people that are far away in Uganda with people who have their everyday lives here in America. It’s a busy world and it’s very difficult to inspire people to really feel how desperate it is to have a family without water. In fact, it’s almost impossible until you go there. That’s the first challenge. It’s difficult to get through to people that there are a billion people in the world today without access to water, which means, there are a billion people in slavery, enslaved to the poverty that comes from lack of water.
In my opinion the lack of water is the greatest single challenge we face today as a world, and as a population that is growing. And therein lies one of the biggest challenges to the world. By 2050, we’re going to have 9.7 billion people on earth, and if you want to break it down, in the next 15 years you’re going to have another billion people. Water is a finite resource—we have the same amount of water as we did when we had dinosaurs.
So we’re going to have an increasing pandemic where people will lack access to water, unless we deal with that and provide it. The means exist to provide that water, the finances are available, and the only thing lacking in the world today is the human will to see to it that water is a basic human right. I don’t use those words lightly. If you believe that water is a basic right, then it’s incumbent on you that you are willing to do what it takes to provide water to every person on earth.
CBJ: How have you put the business acumen of the leadership at Wells of Life to work for the organization?
NJ: Our board is made up of some of the most dynamic Catholics in Orange County, and therein literally lies the driving force behind Wells of Life—Catholic business men and business women who are truly committed to living their faith and doing acts of mercy, where providing water is concerned.
As far as the leadership at Wells of Life is concerned, look no further than the dynamic leadership of our president, Pete Callahan. When you find people that can be on any board that they choose, that have a lifetime of service and are at the top of their profession, they can typically slip into retirement and put on the slippers or golf shoes or play with the grandkids. Instead Pete Callahan, who maintains an active law practice in Southern California, goes to Uganda and comes back completely filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
He’s so invigorated that he wants to dedicate the rest of his life to bringing water to communities in Uganda and he works tirelessly 18 hours a day to do that. Pete Callahan is 72 years of age and he keeps everybody at Wells of Life on their toes, attempting to keep up with him. That’s when you know you have an organization that is on fire and is going into the world by making a difference.
CBJ: As a member of Wells of Life’s board, what does your wife Michelle Jordan contribute to the program?
NJ: Anytime you find a job where you can work along side your wife is a good job. With her support, guidance and infinite patience, Michelle has a huge part to play in Wells of Life, especially with the school outreach. Michelle also created the Run4Water, which we are going to do again in April of 2017. In this event, we mobilize our families, businesses, churches and schools, and invite them to come on out one Sunday out of the year, run a 5K race and help raise funds for one well.
And that one well will bring water to a community of 2,000 people for 20 years. That’s the kind of excitement we want to build from the grassroots not only in Orange County but also all across America.
CBJ: What skills as a business leader have you brought to Wells of Life?
NJ: I guess I could say that it was the probably the easiest transition of skills, running my own company, and to be able to use those skills for work within Wells of Life. It was an easy transition because you have to wear a lot of hats when you run a small company. In fundraising and in running a charity organization, it’s very similar
Yes, I’m a driven guy and anybody who knows me can tell you that. That can be good or bad, believe me. I have been able to use all the determination I had as an immigrant that allowed me to be successful in this country to serve others through Wells of Life. Despite whatever challenges came my way I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. It really has been a great joy to be able to be involved with people like Pete Callahan.
We started out as a voluntary organization and for six years we simply operated as a group of volunteers. About 12 months ago we got to the point where we had to make a decision. Do we want to continue making a little bit of a difference here or there, doing 25-30 wells, or do we want to do something more?
We realized that to give Wells of Life the full opportunity to grow I would need to basically become a chief executive making a full time commitment to Wells of Life. So I took a paid position with Wells of Life earlier this year.
CBJ: With this growth, what new paths has Wells of Life taken in its fundraising efforts?
NJ: This is the first year where we really had gone along the path of growing Wells of Life to reach out and touch and move and inspire children at the school level. Wells of Life visiting schools is one of our biggest areas where we’re growing and making a difference.
When we see elementary school kids, their eyes light up, and they connect the dots and see how much they can do for $6, bringing water to another child through a well that will be operating for the next 20 years. That’s where we believe we are making a profound difference as a non-profit charity organization.
CBJ: Can you provide an example of the kind of people responding to Wells of Life as donors here in America?
NJ: I did a radio interview for a Catholic radio station, which broadcasts in Ohio and Kentucky, and states I’d never been to. After the program finished, I got a phone call and it was a farmer in Ohio who was on his combine listening to the radio program. He told me he was inspired to want to go home to his wife and make a commitment to fund a family well, which he has since done.
People are hungry for the opportunity to serve and they are innately good and when they can see what they do is going to make a difference especially in the lives of children, they’re passionate about the work. Everyone loves children. If you had a child who was dying for lack of water on your front doorstep you’d do whatever you could to save that child’s life; but just because a child tends to be in Uganda, 9,300 miles from California, honestly our job as a non-profit is to bring that child’s life as close to your doorstep as we can so you can understand that you can save that life and in doing so you can be the hands and feet of our Lord.
CBJ: How do you balance the sense of mission at Wells of Life with the bottom line? What keeps Wells of Life successful as both a business and a charity?
NJ: Truly we all believe that this is God’s work and that we’re a tiny little part of it. So it’s really not ours to worry and fret about and micromanage. Everywhere we have gone we have received blessings of support and God has really provided. His hand has touched Wells of Life, and so we do our best and at a certain point we give it over to God, but one of the things that has touched me the most is the modern day miracles that happen through Wells of Life.
CBJ: How else has Wells of Life refocused its mission in the last year?
NJ: We have chosen one area in Uganda to focus on. It’s about two hours west of Kampala and it’s in a district called Mubende, where there is a dire lack of access to water. Only 36 percent of the people of Mubende have access to clean water, which leaves a lot of people without clean water. There are about 400,000 people there and that of that 400,000 there are probably 200,000 Catholics who have no access to water.
So Wells of Life took on the Mubende district; we made a five-year commitment, drew up a five-year business plan, and decided we are going to bring water to every single community in this one district in the next five years. That basically allows so many different opportunities.
In particular we want to connect the Catholic parishes of America to the Catholic parishes in the Mubende district of Uganda, where the parishioners here in America can realize that with one well they can bless their fellow Catholics who they may never meet or see, but they can provide that gift of life to this particular district. So we have received our first drilling rig that we purchased to own and operate, and we will soon begin to drill the first of 400 wells that we have committed to drill in the Mubende district.
CBJ: Why is Wells of Life a good investment for Catholic business leaders?
NJ: A dollar invested in water will provide a return of $8 through the many different benefits that come as a result. In other words, the return comes in the form of the gift of education and the lack of poverty and disease. If a business leader is interested in not just an eternal reward, but also to receive the greatest value for any money they can invest here on earth, then look to an investment in providing water. There is no other better.
From a business leader standpoint, you should be able to measure your investment, and in the case of investing in water, through the water well and the equipment that provides for water wells, you can measure your return in either gallons of water or human lives saved. Take your choice.
CBJ: What would you like from the Catholic business community?
NJ: We’re looking for four things from the business community in no particular order.
(1)We have lots of schools that will raise some funds, maybe $1,000 or $2,000. We’re looking for a partnership with business leaders to encourage those school kids to continue their own funding efforts. If these students each donate a dollar, we’re looking for business leaders to put up $2, $3, perhaps even $4 for every dollar the school raises. In other words, we’re looking to establish a partnership to inspire our kids to do more.
(2) We also need two drilling rigs over the next 18 months that allows us to maintain the best price for our wells. This is a perfect opportunity for a business group to raise the funds for a drilling rig—anywhere between $50,000 to $100,000 is what we wind up spending on our rigs.
(3) As far as our Legacy Gift is concerned, we welcome business leaders to participate in that program too. Anytime you want to create a legacy that will outlast you, with value beyond your life on earth, a Legacy Gift is one that will truly echo in eternity.
(4) Prayer. Pray for the leadership and for our vision that we continue to bring mercy and compassion through water.
Drip or gush?
Written by: Joseph OBrien