CATHOLIC BUSINESS PROFILE: Peter Callahan, President, Wells of Life Share on Facebook

For nearly 50 years, Peter Callahan (pictured left) has served the letter of the law of the land as an attorney in California. But for the last four years this father of two and grandfather of four, with his wife Valerie Callahan’s full support, has also been serving the spirit of the law of love through his work as president of Wells of Life. Founded in 2009, Wells of Life has tapped into a groundswell of charity with Callahan at the helm since 2015. His own invovlement with Wells of Life began with a donation of $6,000 to drill a well in Uganda—and the returns on his “charitable investment” have been gushing forth ever since in the form of clean, pure, life-giving water for people of Uganda. 

Focused on one purpose, to raise funds to access fresh water for Uganda’s poorest citizens, Wells of Life has been providing drilling equipment, the manpower and know-how to drill wells, and the construction and maintenance of the finished wells. Having funded to date more than 260 wells throughout rural Uganda, Wells of Life has developed a strong leadership team assembled by Nick Jordan, Wells of Life’s founder and CEO. While Callahan still maintains a law practice in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area, he has also taken on the work of fundraising for Wells of Life as the organization’s president, after first joining the group in 2013 as a member of the Wells of Life Advisory Board.

The Catholic Business Journal spoke with Callahan about his work with Wells of Life, his first experience visiting “the Callahan Well,” the first Uganda well that he and his family funded, and how his desire to help provide a need as basic as clean water motivated him to embrace the mission and vision of Wells of Life. 

Catholic Business Journal (CBJ): Why did you decide to be a lawyer in the first place?

Peter Callahan (PC): I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I wish I could say I saw To Kill a Mockingbird or something like that, but I wasn’t really inspired that way. No one else was a lawyer in my family. My older brother is a dentist and I have a sister who is working on a doctorate in education. My mother was interested in education and stressed that education was important when we were growing up. But it was through my uncle that I became interested in law.

My uncle was a custodian at the courthouse in Crown Point, Indiana. I would sometimes spend summers with him and go around the courthouse after it was closed and help my uncle clean out the courtrooms. I would sit at the judge’s bench after hours and go down to the basement, which was a jail where the criminal John Dillinger was held briefly. I guess that’s how I got inspired to study law.

CBJ: How did you get involved in Wells of Life?

PC: I have been ripped off by a lot of charities over the years, and I can think of one charity in particular which frosted me. I’d been giving to this charity for 25 years. I even met the president of the charity and I had gotten 15 to 20 letters from people helped by the charity, and it had a lot of Hollywood names involved. Then I noticed that the state of California was investigating the charity because the salaries that the officers were getting was up in the several hundred thousand dollar range, and most of the money was going into overhead.

Well, around that time I also ran into Nick Jordan, the founder of Wells of Life, at a St. Patrick’s Day party, where he pitched me on the Wells of Life. He said every penny donated to Wells of Life goes into drilling the wells. I was very suspicious of that claim, so I told him half-kiddingly that if his claim were not true, I would sue him and put him in jail for a while. I put up the money for a well and then I told him I would go to Uganda and test out his claim about the money going straight to the well. He called my bluff and asked me when I could go—so I went to Uganda in 2014.

My wife didn’t want to go and so I took my oldest daughter and my oldest grandson Jack, who was ten years old at the time. It was a life-changing experience for all three of us. After that first day when we visited the Callahan well, that is, the well that I had built through my donation, it became clear that all $6,000 of my money had gone into the well.

Since then, the Callahan family has donated for five wells, but that first one we visited was in a certain way the most remarkable. We visited the village where the well was put in the year before, and it was amazing to see the grateful people. My grandson, especially, fit right in with playing with the other kids.

CBJ: What made that first visit so remarkable for you?

PC: After the day visiting the village, we came back to our hotel, and a member of Wells of Life’s board interviewed each of us for about 60 seconds on video, asking us to give our impressions of what took place that day. He pulled each of us off by ourselves to talk with him, and my grandson’s video is by far the best. It’s inspiring how it affected Jack. He realized the good he was doing these people.

I sometimes ask, “Why Africa?” Aren’t there places in the U.S. that we can help? Sure, and there are a lot of good charities that are doing that work here in the U.S., too, but nobody in the U.S. is as poor as the people in Africa. Very few people in the U.S. don’t have running water and electricity.

CBJ: What makes water so important to people in Africa?

PC: The simple fact is that many, many people in Africa don’t have access to clean water. Even the homeless here in the U.S. can go to a public water fountain for clean water. Not so in Africa. In Africa they don’t say water is important to life—they say water is life.

Without water the children in Africa die in shocking numbers. More shocking is that we here in the U.S. know about it, can do something about it—and yet we don’t. A hundred years ago we had the excuse that we didn’t really know what was going on in the third world, and fifty years ago we had the excuse that there wasn’t much we could do about it even if we did know what’s going on.

But today we don’t have excuses. We know about it, we know how to solve it—and the solution is quick, verifiable and reliable. But I guess many of us can’t be bothered with what’s going on so far away from us.

I think if we stepped outside our door and found a child dying on our front steps we’d do something about it; we’d take the child to the hospital or try to help him in some way. But when it comes to a child in Africa dying, out of sight is out of mind. Having gone over there, that mentality is a little harder to maintain.

CBJ: How do people who donate to Wells of Life benefit?

PC: We’re an international charity in the sense that our works are doing good over in Africa, but also, here in the U.S., children are learning the benefits of charity and the ease with which charity can do a good deed. Nick and I were giving a presentation at a school, and we have these cans with pictures on them of the people of Uganda that the American school children can put their money in to donate to the cause.

In a certain sense, though, it’s not as important how much money we get from those donation cans, but as it is that the kids get the idea that they can do something and participate in a life-changing and even life-saving event. We try to get a school to adopt a village or school in Uganda and work with the parents to raise $6,000, and then we can put a well in that school, send the students videotapes and pictures and even Skype with the kids in Africa. In fact, the relationships between American schools and Ugandan schools have sometimes developed to the point where the American school sends school books and supplies to the school in Africa.

These students here in the U.S. get to see they’re doing good and not just putting money into a stream of charitable efforts. Instead they’re seeing solid results; they’re seeing kids their age on the other side of the world who might have died or gone blind because of dirty water but who have instead been saved in part through these American students’ efforts. 

CBJ: How do the children respond to the Wells of Life presentation?

PC: During one of these presentations that Nick and I were leading, two boys at this one middle school left  the auditorium and came back about 20 minutes later. They had gone home and cracked open their piggy banks. Between the two of them, these boys had $24 made up of scrunched up dollar bills and a collection of change—with maybe a $5 bill being the largest bill they had.

Nick asked these two boys, “How many times does six go into 24? [The wells calculate out to serve about $6 per person in Uganda for 25 years.] Four times, right? You two boys have given us money with which we can save the lives of four people.” Then Nick turned to the rest of the children in the audience that day. “You and your other friends may have done great things up to the age of 10 or 12—perhaps hit a homerun in Little League, or set up a lemonade stand to raise money for a local hospital—but these two boys, through their generous spirit, have actually saved the lives of four other human beings.” That’s a pretty impressive thing to tell a kid 12 years old.

CBJ: How did you make the jump from law to non-profit work?

PC: I loved practicing law and loved trial work, trying over 250 cases with verdicts and I enjoyed it. But after almost 50 years of doing it I thought there had to be more. I was happy being a lawyer but going to Uganda that first time, I heard a call. There’s the song, “Here I am Lord”—they sang that song at a small village church over there in Uganda. I listened to the words and I thought that God was speaking to me in that song in that place. “Here I am Lord, is it I? Are you calling me to do this? I’ll do it, and follow you.” This is how I want to spend the rest of my life—following this call by God to help the people of Uganda by providing them fresh water. They don’t need another lawyer in California—after all, we’ve got 33,000 of them here. Some people would say that’s a few too many. But in Uganda, there are not that many people doing what I’m doing.

CBJ: Why did you become president of Wells of Life?

PC: I came back from Uganda after that first trip and talked to my wife. Her only question was “Do we have to move to Uganda?” but she has been absolutely supportive. So I started out as an advisory board member for Wells of Life and a couple years ago they asked me to take over as president. But then I saw that there had to be some changes to the organization. We were raising money every year, using up that money every year, but then starting every year over practically from scratch in regards to fundraising. We needed a more stable foundation from which to raise our funds.

I wanted Wells of Life to have some legs—and even more financial stability than it already had. I had gone to a couple foundations to raise money. They told me that the problem is, although Wells of Life is a great cause, how do we raise our money? I told them we did a gala one year and last year we did a running event for water, which we’re going to do again this year. Last year we raised enough money for 20 wells at that running event, and this year, 40 wells is our goal.

But these sources weren’t dependable enough, these foundations I spoke to pointed out. What if these events gets canceled or don’t do well for one reason or another?

So Nick Jordan came up with the Legacy Founders program where we would get people or businesses to pledge gifts over five years. That was for our first year, and we reached our goal of $750,000 that first year; it is enough funds to let us go to one of these foundations and say, even if it rains on our running event or the day we have our gala, there’s enough money in the bank to continue the operation to take care of the wells we’ve already drilled. So we had stability.

CBJ: How do you keep the costs of drilling wells to only $6,000 a well?

PC: For the first eight years of Wells of Life’s existence, we contracted with two other charities to drill water wells in Uganda. We started out at $4,000 a well a couple years ago, and then, for various economic reasons, these charities raised the price to $6,000. They tried to raise it again and we negotiated with them. They said they’d keep it at $6,000 if we’d send the wells in blocks of five. So when we get $30,000, these charities had been drilling five wells for us at a time at this $6,000 price.

CBJ: Are you still working with these other charities?

PC: This year, once we got some money of our own, we decided to buy our own drilling rig, and to man the rig with workers for another charity that raised money by selling coffee. When the workers on this charity’s coffee planation aren’t working they drill wells for this other charity. Wells of Life drilled about 250 wells through the other charities we worked with, but this coffee-growing charity drilled about 40 of their own with their own rigs and their own labor. And they did it by training their coffee growers as drilling crews.

So we made a deal with this coffee-growing charity that they would drill for us as a joint venture with our drills and their employees. That way we can still keep the price of wells  at $6,000—with every penny going to the wells.

CBJ: Are there plans for Wells of Life to make these drilling operations self-sustaining?

PC: We’re planning to develop a well-mechanic school where we can train Ugandan people to fix their own wells. The drilling of a well is not all that complicated, and the fixing of a well is not that complicated either. We think we can train local people to fix the wells themselves and bring some of this money into these rural areas. Right now they’re really emphasizing agriculture in Uganda, but we think we can get them to begin thinking of other ways to bring in income.  

In addition, when we free the women up so they don’t have to be beasts of burden carrying water on their heads all day, we’re looking into starting a micro-loan program where they can borrow some money and buy sewing machines to make things such as jewelry. And they’ll also make soap and things like that.

We’re helping these rural communities not only to get clean accessible water but also to use the time that the wells free up for them to raise the general economic and physical health of the community – and the mental health too. The brain is 85 percent water and if you fill your brain with dirty water you’re not going to be thinking well, have ambition or imagination. After all, clean water is even more important that food. You can live for a while without food but only a few days without water.

CBJ: What’s been the greatest challenge for Wells of Life?

PC: I think the biggest challenge is getting people to listen and appreciate how much good they can do for such a small amount of money. It’s hard to get a hearing. If I can get in front of a group, whether a school or anybody, I can usually convince them to join in this effort. People figure we’re going to come and twist their arm or manipulate their emotions with pictures of African babies covered in flies, but Wells of Life doesn’t work that way. It helps that people who hear about Wells of Life have a faith-based background, but it’s not necessary. Wells of Life is non-denominational but faith-based.

CBJ: What had been the greatest reward in working with Wells of Life?

PC: The biggest reward comes from knowing the good we’re doing in Uganda, and being there in person to be thanked taught me an important lesson in humility.

After that first visit to Uganda in 2014, one of the village leaders came up to me as we were getting ready to leave and told me something.

“I want to thank you for coming today,” he said to me.

I shrugged it off but he got a little irritated and came closer. “I don’t think you appreciate what you’re coming here has meant to these people. We have water in our village and my mom can stay home and be a mom, my sisters can go to school now and not spend all their days carrying water.”

Women were affected most by the lack of water because of how far they had to walk to access water. He was also appreciative of the fact that I brought my daughter and grandson.

This village leader also said, “I’ll be it cost about twice to fly all three of you here as it did to pay for the well.”

It did—I had to admit, about $18,000 to fly to Uganda from California.

Then this villager said, “The fact that you thought enough to come was very important to the village.”


By: Joseph O' Brien
Source: Catholic Business Journal

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