massai-warrior-don-ryder.jpgA Harley-riding Wisconsin senior has been given the National Franciscan Peace Award for 2009, an honor previously given to Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. Don Ryder works as the Wausau city safety director, but it is his work on a life-saving water project in drought-ridden Africa that earned him the prestigious prize.

Women no longer need to trek 15 miles to collect dirty water from a stream, thanks to Mr. Ryder, the Secular Franciscan church-goer who raised money and coordinated the digging of new wells to provide clean, fresh water for their tribes in Kenya.

The Maasai village of Saikeri accepted Don’s first gift of water and watched as the workers drilled down 400 feet to strike water for the first time.

“The people were jubilant,” said Ryder, who the proud Maasai warriors named “Lemayian,” the Blessed One.
It has made a tremendous difference in their lives. Now the tribes can plant seeds rather than rely on livestock as their main source of food. To ensure future success, two young men from the village were sent to school to learn how to maintain the diesel engines and pumps, and to learn drip-irrigation farming.

Several wells have already been drilled, at a cost of between $45,000 and $65,000 each — the first one delivers water to 5,000 Maasai and their 100,000 cattle. The second well is providing running water for a school, and soon for a clinic, but more wells are needed.

The long journey that women walked, 15 miles one way through dangerous wilderness, is now relegated to storytelling elders for sharing in song and dance the tales of earlier hardship. The stories will someday include the birth of a hospital, if Ryder’s mission continues.

don-ryder-franciscan-award-winner.jpg Ryder and his wife, Yvonne, have a long history of working with the poor and marginalized. Volunteering with the Catholic diocese, the couple helped build a church and repair homes in Kenya. After returning home, they heard about the worsening drought that was hitting hard the Maasai people.

“The lack of rain over several years was devastating herds of cattle and the people whose livelihood depended on the livestock,” said Ken Beattie, a minister from Wisconsin’s La Verna Secular Franciscan Region who nominated Ryder for the award.

The problem worried Ryder for a time until he finally decided to do something, after opening the Bible to get an answer about his discontent regarding the drought. His finger fell to a passage in the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” His church parish offered to help make his vision a reality so he and his friend Romey Wagner set about raising the money to build a well.

He told more Secular Franciscans, who jumped on board, and soon they were booking speaking engagements to talk to schools, churches, and Rotary Clubs. A young couple donated $2,000 while school children collected coins. Donations started pouring in from coast to coast, he said.

Anyone interested in donating to the Kenyan water project may do so through the Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin.

As for the future, Don says, “We’ll always be digging a new well.”

The award from the U.S. Secular Franciscan Order comes with a St. Francis trophy and a $2,000 prize.

Thanks to Bobbi and Mike S. for sending the story! Watch their interview with Don below… 


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