Ryan and Jimmy tell their story together

By  Sara Loftson, Catholic Register
  • October 3, 2006

Jimmy Akana and Ryan Hreljac TORONTO - Ryan Hreljac stands a lanky six feet, four inches tall with a head full of scruffy, dirty blonde hair that could easily sweep the top of most door frames if he didn't bother to duck. But perhaps it's about time this 15-year-old's height caught up with the size of his heart.

In the past eight years the boy from Kemptville, Ont., overcame a stutter to become an international spokesperson for the right to clean, accessible water in Third World countries.

"He used to be quick to tears, painfully shy," said Hreljac's mother Susan Hreljac, commenting on the effect of Hreljac's early speech impediment. Now "he's certainly more poised and polished.

"Hreljac missed his high school football home opener this fall to give a flood of media interviews in Toronto before the Oct. 12 book launch in Ottawa of Ryan and Jimmy: And the Well in Africa That Brought Them Together by Herb Shoveller. It's a biographical account of how six-year-old Hreljac's inspiration to build a single well in Africa evolved into Ryan's Well Foundation, which has built more than 200 wells in 11 different countries.

In the past eight years Hreljac has travelled the world meeting the likes of Pope John Paul II, former prime minister Jean Chretien and Dr. Jane Goodall. He's appeared on Oprah's TV show twice, he has a star on the Disney walk of fame and has won countless awards including the Mother Teresa Act of Kindness award and the Nelson Mandela Humanitarian award.

"The only reason I keep on doing all of this is if it will help at least one more person," said Hreljac.

This all started when Hreljac, then a Grade 1 student at Holy Cross school in Kemptville, came home from school after a lesson on Third World poverty and asked his mother for $70 to buy a well in Africa. He was distressed after his classroom teacher explained that many children in Third World countries get sick and even die due to unclean water.

His parents brushed off the six-year-old's request, until Hreljac approached them again more seriously a few days later.

"You don't get it," said Hreljac." Someone just died because they don't have clean drinking water and you didn't do anything about it."

The couple conceded under one condition: if Hreljac was serious he would have to work for his money. He raised the $70 in four months, doing household chores, often keeping him from playing with his friends.

Once Hreljac collected the money he presented it to WaterCan, a Canadian not-for-profit organization that provides clean water to the world's poor. Unfortunately, they explained $70 only pays for a hand pump and it takes approximately $2,000 to install a complete well.

Undeterred and unaware of the value of $2,000, Hreljac volunteered to raise the rest.

"Every time he set a new goal my husband and I said: 'he's not going to do that,' " said Susan Hreljac.

Around this time the media caught wind of the story and envelopes full of money started pouring into the Hreljac's mailbox.

In the meantime Hreljac started Grade 2 and his classroom teacher set up a pen pal partnership with a school in Uganda where the well was to be built. Hreljac was paired with Jimmy Akana.

With the support of neighbours donating air miles, Hreljac and his parents travelled to Uganda to visit the new well and pen pal.

While it's estimated that Hreljac's efforts have helped approximately 400,000 people throughout the world, the second part of the children's book focuses on one young boy, Jimmy , Hreljac's Ugandan pen pal who, four years after their initial meeting, came to live with the Hreljacs in Canada.

Like thousands of children in Uganda, Akana was caught in the crossfire of a two-decade civil war between the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel paramilitary group that operates mainly in northern Uganda.

The group uses child soldiers to fight against the government. It is suspected that the LRA is responsible for the disappearance of Akana's parents.

In 2002, the LRA raided Agweo, Akana's village, and captured him in order to turn him into a child solider. Akana escaped. But his life was still under constant threat.

The boys managed to keep in contact, and knowing the danger Akana was in, the Hreljacs invited him to help their son present his story at a conference in Vancouver.

With great difficulty, Akana obtained a six-month visa. During his visit the Hreljacs successfully helped him apply for refugee status. And in 2003, Jimmy became a landed immigrant. He now lives permanently with the Hreljacs.

Akana said moving to Canada has been an adjustment, but it's been good for him.

"It makes me sad to think they're over there," said Jimmy, 17, referring to those he left behind. "It makes me think in the future I'd like to do something."

For now Akana concentrates on finishing high school and running cross-country races, something that he would have never dreamed of doing years ago and had he never met Ryan.

I'd be "going back and forth to get water all my natural life," said Jimmy. "I would say I would be living a normal life, because I wouldn't know any different."

When asked if the two are best friends Hreljac replied: "we're not friends, we're brothers."

Now the pair presents their tale as a team. "For me I was nervous, but as I continue to do more I get used to it," said Akana, who's worked hard to learn fluent English, trying to overcome the stutters Hreljac once had as a child.

"(Ryan) was just a regular, ordinary kid," Susan Hreljac. "You don't have to be special or rich. Parents have to look for it in their kids. If he didn't pester us none of this would ever have happened. Teachers aren't always at the front of the classroom."

Visit their website at Ryan's Well Foundation

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