Honoree Spotlight

Ryan Hreljac: One Well at a Time

One day, six-year-old Ryan Hreljac was sitting in his first grade classroom listening to his teacher explain that many people across the world do not have access to something that Ryan and his classmates take for granted: clean water. He learned that these people often had to schedule hours out of their day to walk to a water source; sources that often produced dirty water. As he thought about how he only had to walk down the hall to the drinking fountain when he was thirsty, he became struck with a deep sympathy for people who didn’t have access to this luxury. He decided to do something about it.

On the Ground
Ryan Hreljac – 2003 Youth Award

Impact to date:

713 wells and 911 latrines have been built to provide clean access to water for more than 750,991.


To deliver access to safe water and sanitation to people in the developing world and empower citizens of all ages to take action and effect change in the world.

Words of Wisdom:

“I found out where my puzzle piece fits in the world and that is with water. I just hope everyone else finds out where their puzzle piece fits too.”

Around the same time, Ryan and his classmates began writing to pen pals at the Angolo Primary School in Uganda. Ryan’s pen pal was Jimmy Akana, who gave Ryan a first-hand account of how difficult it was to get water. Jimmy often had to wake up at midnight in order to walk eight kilometers to retrieve a small bucket of water for his family and still get to school on time in the morning. Hearing this reinforced Ryan’s determination to help solve this issue. At six years old, Ryan estimated that building a well in Uganda would cost $70 and, therefore, the solution was simple; he could ask his parents to help and in return they would give him extra chores to earn the money. But he soon learned that building a well costs far more than extra allowance money (about $2,000) and the problem was bigger than he originally imagined.

The problem was so big, in fact, that 894 million people around the world lack access to safe water, claiming the lives of more people through disease than most wars. Half of the world’s hospital beds are taken by patients suffering from waterborne diseases, according to the Ryan’s Well website.

But these numbers didn’t intimidate young Ryan. Instead, he upped his efforts and spoke at service clubs, school classes and to anyone else who would listen. Finally, he raised enough money to build a well for his pen pal, Jimmy, and Jimmy’s village. By January, 1999 the well was completed. Two years later the Ryan’s Well Foundation was born.

In 2003, the World of Children honored Ryan with their annual Youth Award for his incredible dedication to children in need. By then, the Foundation had raised over $1 million for water and sanitation projects and built more than 120 wells in African countries. Since then, Ryan has won numerous other awards, including Planet Africa’s Nelson Mandela Humanitarian Award, the Top 20 Under 20 Award and the Duke of Ediburgh Gold Award.

To date, Ryan’s Well Foundation has built over 700 wells and 900 latrines in developing countries, providing safe access to water for more than 750,900 people worldwide.

Today, Ryan is in his third year at the University of King’s College in Canada studying international development and political science. His old pen pal, Jimmy, later moved to Canada to live with Ryan’s family in order to escape abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Jimmy will be graduating from college this year.

Ryan continues to speak about water issues around the world and support the efforts of his foundation, emphasizing the fact that everyone has the power to create change – even a first grader.

“I found out where my puzzle piece fits in the world and that is with water,” Ryan said. “I just hope everyone else finds out where their puzzle piece fits too.”

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