Field Note #225
Clay Hess is a dedicated member of the Wine To Water community, driven by his passion for service and adventure. Clay recently took to the field with W|W once again, but for the extended period of two whole months! This is his story.
I’ve lived in Nepal for the past two months, working alongside Wine To Water and the people of Kalyanpur. This is a reflection of my time and a glimpse at all that I’ve learned. This experience has been humbling, eye-opening, and full of love. I’ve learned, grew, and become more than I could have imagined. This W|W program in Nepal has changed my life. And I hope that in sharing my experience with you, you’ll feel called to let it change yours too.
I first heard about the work W|W was doing in a Public Speaking class at Laramie County Community College. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I knew that I wanted to be a part of their work. That Christmas, I donated to W|W as a present for my family. I continued doing that for the next four Christmases before finally going to the field to serve in November of 2017.
That first volunteer trip was everything. For those of you who know me, my life hasn’t always been the easiest. But in my struggle that didn’t always make sense, this trip made it seem like everything had a reason. I had this passion in me all along, not in spite of what I’ve been through—but because of it. It just took this trip to ignite this drive for working with communities who also wanted to better other people’s lives.
Needless to say, I completely fell in love with the people, culture, and the work being done in Nepal. I knew then I wanted to come back for a longer stay. Fast-forward one year, and here I am, at the culmination of the past two months in Nepal and six years being a part of this W|W community.
I've always been the one to volunteer for any job. No matter how dirty or tiring it was, I’d be the guy to sign up. If we needed someone to take a QB — 45 pounds of drinking water on top of the 40-pound pack we’re already carrying — I wouldn’t even hesitate before throwing it over my shoulder. This is how you move up as a Wild Land Firefighter.
I’ve been a Firefighter in the Midwest for five seasons now. I had dreams of getting on a Hot Shot Crew by next season and becoming a Smoke Jumper one day. But my mindset of always doing what needed to be done with no hesitation got me into trouble.
In August, we were burning off a road to a main fire. I saw one of our tools on the other side of the road and without thinking, I jumped out to grab it. On the way there, I cleared the 3.5 barbed wire fence easily but on the way back, I couldn’t say the same. I lost my balance, over-corrected, and fell over on my side. I hit my straight leg, dislocated my hip and broke off a piece of my Acetabulum.
I was told I wouldn’t be able to walk for three months and that a full recovery would take six. I was crushed. I felt like all my plans for moving up in fire and serving with W|W in the field were slipping away. But I didn’t want that. Instead of letting this injury get the best of me, I let it fuel my rehab. I was able to walk in six weeks and got a doctor’s clearance after three months. And here I am. I was able to finish my fire season in dispatch, serve in the DR, and stay in Nepal for two months.
All this say, I am still very much in recovery. Being here has physically challenged me. From the travel on bumpy roads on the back of motorcycles to being incredibly active in all the work in our projects, my body has struggled to continue to heal itself here. And with that, I’ve had to take more time off to rest than I originally thought I would.
Through this, my purpose has changed. I thought that the value of my experience would be in what I could physically do for these communities. But they don’t need me—they are more than fully capable of doing the work themselves. The value of this experience is in what I learned from them and what I can take home with me to transform my life and hopefully, other people’s too.
So much work gets done on a daily basis here in Nepal but it isn’t with the same “go go go” mindset. People work slowly but surely—bistarai, bistarai—focusing on the community aspect of work instead of productivity. And more than anything, this is what I’ve learned here—to slow down, to be more present, and to pour into the people around me.
Being in the field for 35 days gave me the opportunity to form close relationships with people I now call my family. Baburam is one of these people.
When I first met him in January, I could tell he was a hard worker and that he was very serious about his job as a skilled laborer and now, Village Maintenance Worker. Baburam lives the closest to the water source out of the 99 homes in Kalyanpur and comparatively, his family hasn’t felt the burden of the water crisis as much as people who live further back in the village. But even in being only 30 steps away from the initial water source, he is still passionate about bringing water to all the people in this community. He truly wants to help his people here.
Seven days a week, nine hours a day, Baburam has worked side-by-side with Lila, the W|W Field Technician. Learning from him, he’s grown to be one of the best workers Lila says has ever had. He’s put aside his daily chores, drinking, and even time with his family to sacrifice for this water project. I know a job can give you drive to earn money but there is so much more here.
It took him a little to warm up to me but when I came back to Kalyanpur after all the other volunteers had left, he greeted me with the tightest hug. I felt like I was back home.
Right away I was thrown into the work mix with him and many others in the community. He showed me all the skills and we worked together well. And as each day went on, he opened up more.
One day we were with a group of seven guys melting the pipes together. They were asking about my family and wanted to see pictures. I showed them pictures of my aunt and uncle and cousins—the family I’ve had since I was five—and pictures of my sister’s family too. I explained to them that I didn’t live with my parent’s because of drug and alcohol abuse. But when I told them that my dad had stopped drinking a year and a half ago after 48 years of use, I saw Baburam’s eyes tear up in the most accepting look ever. He knew then I didn’t look down on him because he didn’t drink, but that I understood and respected him because of it. That moment was transformative in our relationship. Our bond grew even closer—same with the other’s who were also genuinely interested in my life.
The community works six days a week to get this project done, everyone taking their turn to help. But this is not the case for Baburam. He even works through Saturdays—their holy day—so that the project can keep progressing.
One day there was a wedding in the village and Lila took off work so Baburam had to too. This was the only day I saw him take during the whole month I was there. And instead of taking it off to help get things done for himself, he took me and the guys fishing. I thought that he would sell the fish he caught but instead, he invited us over to his house where he cooked them for us. We laughed, talked, and ate for hours.
We continued our work together each day and I saw that more and more, he came out of his shell. On my last day in the field, I jumped into one of the 20,000 liter tanks to help plaster the inside. He was so thrilled to see me and started to sing and dance. As cement was being thrown around, everything got hazy—allowing for a beam of light to come in from the top of the tank. He ran over to hug the light and we made shadow puppets together. It was such a fun last day. I knew that he was being himself with me and that I had become a friend—not just a foreigner.
After every volunteer trip, the community hosts a dance to celebrate our time in the community. My trip in March was no different. But there was a difference in Baburam. In January, he barely danced at all but in March, a volunteer taught him to swing dance. I couldn’t help but smile. I can’t say for sure, but I think that he opened up to all of us foreigners as a result of me staying in the community longer.
Continuing to support people like Baburam with the opportunity to serve their community is something I’ve found a new deep-rooted drive for. I am more passionate now than ever before to raise awareness on the water crisis and get people involved with W|W.
This long term stay Nepal has really changed my perspective in life. As hard it is for me to know that I'll be going back to the states to have surgery on my hip and that this will add more to my recovery time, I’ve learned that slowing down is good. Slow and steady, focusing more on relationships and less on productivity, is a healthy way to approach everything in life.
This summer, I’ll be working in prevention and dispatch in Utah. And as I’ll still be recovering, I'll have more weekends and time to get the word out about W|W’s programs—hopefully even traveling to other fire stations to share my story about the water crisis.
I want to get a group of fire folks to support W|W during our off-season. Because more than anything, I want the brotherhood of fire fighters to come together and build community through this work. Maybe this looks like going on trips, or maybe it’s something similar to “Fill The Boot” and we’ll call it “Fill The Bucket.” I'd even love to see all of us come together for something as simple as a glass of water that we take for granted.
The church I grew up with, First United Methodist Church, is still so supportive of me and all that I’m doing. We are hosting a Filter Build on World Water Day, March 22, this year. Even though I’ve been in Nepal for most of the planning, so many awesome people have come to me with ideas and contacts to get the whole town involved. It's amazing to see how my stories sparked so many people’s interest to continue planning this even while I’m here. So far we have 190 filters purchased and were shooting for 200!
Wine to Water is incredible because they have allowed me to come be a part of this program on a deeper level than any other volunteer. Throughout all of it, they have been so supportive of my ideas and how I want to continue to reach others.
The W|W Nepal staff especially has done so much for me. They have been nothing less than everything here. Planning months before my arrival to make sure all the logistics were covered, wanting to get to know me more, wanting to feed me, wanting me to come to their homes, wanting to make sure that I wasn’t working too hard… this team is so caring. And they didn’t need to do all of this—they wanted to.
I know that’s because of all the work that everyone has put in for me to be here, so many of my friends were able to become my family. I’m so grateful for this experience and I can’t thank you all enough for believing in me and giving me the opportunity.
And I’m excited to see what this will do for me as I continue to volunteer alongside W|W!