Be patient. It’s exciting to start a new project, but it’s also important to realize when you are passionate about making a difference on a big issue, it takes time. A lot of time. I always remind myself, “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” Pace yourself. It took four years from the time I developed a passion to help my pen pal until I learned how I could actually help her. And then, after my initial trip to Uganda, it took over a year to figure out how I could continue to help. Be patient and allow the process to unfold one day at a time.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lucy Westlake.
Lucy, an eighteen-year-old environmental changemaker living in Los Angeles, California, is the founder of LucyClimbs, an organization on a mission to help combat our world’s water crisis. To date, LucyClimbs has raised more than $30,000 to bring safe water technology to the developing world by hosting used shoe drives, selling LucyClimbs merchandise, and climbing the world’s highest mountains. On May 12, 2022, Lucy became the youngest American woman to summit Mount Everest, holding a LucyClimbs ‘Fight for Safe Water’ flag on the top of the world. Using her climbing platform to further her mission of raising money and awareness for safe water, Lucy has received extensive media coverage for her mountaineering successes. Following her ascent of Mt Everest alone, she was interviewed on: Good Morning America 3, Today Show, NBC News Now, NBC News with Lester Holt, Inside Edition, WGN Morning Show, NBC Chicago, ABC Chicago, Sports Spectrum podcast, and featured in publications: Newsweek, People Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Yahoo News, Fansided, and The Lonely Planet. This list continues to grow weekly as she pursues her goal of completing the Explorers Grand Slam (climbing the highest mountain on each continent and skiing the last degree to the North and South poles).
As a 2022 winner of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, Lucy was granted a $10,000 award to continue her fieldwork in East Africa installing WaterStep M-100 Chlorine Generators in rural villages that have never had access to safe water. Lucy was also a 2022 recipient of the Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award at the ESPYS and recognized as a ‘History Maker’ at the 2022 Women’s Sports Foundation Annual Salute to Women in Sports. Lucy is currently studying Public Policy at the University of Southern California to become a global policy leader helping the United Nations reach their Sustainable Development Goal 6: “clean water and sanitation for all.”
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was born at home in a rural town on the shores of Lake Superior, Upper Peninsula, Michigan. It was not my parent’s intention to make this our year-round home, but they had just finished graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and wanted to move back to the Midwest to be closer to family. The home I was born in has been passed down in my father’s family for five generations and it has always been a very special place to my dad. It’s my favorite place in the world because I spent every summer of my childhood there playing outdoors with friends, swimming in the lake, climbing the hills, and running the trails. I consider Eagle Harbor, Michigan, my home because we moved around a lot throughout my childhood. I’ve lived in Michigan, Mexico, Alabama, Kentucky, Illinois, and now California. I contribute all the moving to my love for traveling, exploring new places, and meeting new people.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Samaritan’s Purse, a humanitarian aid organization, has an annual program, Operation Christmas Child, where you pack a shoe box filled with Christmas gifts, drop it off at one of their collection centers, and then the boxes are sent to children in the poorest countries that otherwise would not receive Christmas gifts. When I was three years old, my mom and I packed a Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child shoebox, and we included a letter asking whoever received the package to write me back. It’s not common to receive a letter back since the boxes are received by the poorest children in the poorest countries worldwide. Yet, months later, a letter arrived in my mailbox from Uganda. My shoebox had been received by a three-year-old girl that lived in a rural village with a Christian community center and the women in the village helped the children write letters back to the sender thanking them for the gifts. So as long as I can remember, I’ve had a pen pal in Uganda named Faith.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a difference to me means influencing someone else’s life in a way that they would not have experienced without you. Making a difference in one person’s life can be just as important as making a difference in thousands of people’s lives. I think it’s really important for young people to remember that. Compassion and empathy for others grows in the heart, but overtime it becomes a mindset that orchestrates your life’s decisions. For example, when I was six years old, I lived in Mexico for a year. It was there that I witnessed poverty and homelessness for the first time. On every street corner as I walked to school, women and children looked up at me with weary faces: some wrinkled, some newly born, others my own age. And simply by stopping for a moment and placing a few pesos in their outstretched hands, I could turn their furrowed brows into beautiful smiles. These moments planted in my heart the seeds of love and care for those less fortunate than I, and those seeds have now grown into a garden.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
LucyClimbs is an organization dedicated to helping youth become actively involved in raising money for safe water projects in developing countries. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly established 17 Sustainable Development Goals to find solutions to our world’s most pressing issues: Goal 6: “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all.” Billions of people — mostly in rural areas — still lack basic water and sanitation services. Worldwide, one in three people do not have access to safe drinking water, two out of five people do not have a basic hand-washing facility, and more than 673 million people still practice open defecation. 80% of all worldwide illnesses are caused by contaminated drinking water and each day 1000 children die from preventable water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases. Together, we can change these statistics and work towards ensuring that everyone on our planet has access to water and sanitation services in our lifetime.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My pen pal, Faith, and I wrote letters back and forth to each other from the time we were 3 years old. Communication was simple at first, but slowly, with each letter, we discovered more about each other’s life and how different living in the United States was from living in a rural village in Uganda. I still remember the letter when I was nine years old learning that Faith’s village lived without access to water. This was a concept that was very difficult for me to understand, but my mother showed me photos and videos of people in Africa living in the same type of circumstances as Faith. Faith’s letter described how she and her mother, along with the other women and children in the village, walked two miles every day to fetch water from a hole in the ground. She would then carry the heavy container of dirty water back to her home. The contaminated water cycled chronic illnesses through the village, oftentimes leading to death in the most vulnerable. Death was a common reality for the children under 5 in Atriri village. To me, it was unimaginable that my pen pal, my friend, was suffering each day in these conditions. I wanted more than anything to go to Africa to help her. I was only 9 years old at this time, but I begged my parents to take me to Atriri village; although, I had no idea what I could possibly do to help. My mom would always say, “We can’t go now, but one day you will.”
Four years later, at the age of 13, a representative from WaterStep, a non-profit organization manufacturing safe water technology for the developing world, spoke to my church youth group educating us about the world’s water crisis and how WaterStep was helping to bring safe water to those in need. That night, I told my parents that I had learned how to help Faith and her village. Within days, we were visiting WaterStep’s headquarters located less than five miles away from our home in Louisville, Kentucky, learning how to install a WaterStep M-100 Chlorine Generator in a rural village that could supply up to 3000 people a day with safe drinking water. The following year, with a WaterStep M-100 Chlorine Generator in my carry-on backpack, my family and I were on our way to bring safe water to Atriri village and meet my pen pal for the first time.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. We don’t always get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
It was in Uganda, witnessing first-hand the suffering caused from lack of safe water, where I decided that I must take action to help solve our world’s water crisis. As a 13-year-old girl from the United States who had never experienced this burden, my heart broke witnessing the inequalities of this world. Instead of allowing my privilege to be a source of shame, it became my motivation to use the resources available to educate others about this pressing health emergency and inspire them to take action as well.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Upon returning from Uganda knowing I wanted to do something, I started talking to my family and teachers exploring ideas of what I could possibly do. Everyone would ask me, “What do you enjoy doing?” My answer: climbing mountains and running. So, I decided that the next mountain I climbed I would dedicate the climb to raising money and awareness for the world’s water crisis and fundraise for WaterStep. My fundraiser was such a success that I decided to create an organization to build my efforts upon, and that’s how LucyClimbs began.
Since I only climb mountains during my school breaks, I wanted LucyClimbs to be more than that. My passion and vision for the organization was to inspire other teenagers to care about this cause and work together to help make a difference. As an 8th grade student, I decided the easiest and best way to get started was in my own school. I knew that WaterStep had a well-established shoe program that turns used shoes into money by selling them to exporters who repurpose the shoes in the world’s poorest countries. The shoes create micro-businesses in these countries offering affordable footwear to many who otherwise would not have shoes.
Teenagers do not have extra money to donate; however, they do have used shoes. Working with the service club members and teacher sponsor at my junior high school, we decided to host the first WaterStep used shoe drive during our annual dodgeball tournament. Everyone who brought a pair of used shoes and put them in our WaterStep collection bin would receive a discount on admission. It was so successful that I knew asking teenagers to clean out their closets for a good cause was a great idea. And that’s how the LucyClimbs used shoe drives began.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Of course, COVID made things interesting. In 2019, the WaterStep Teen Board hosted World Water Day shoe drives in 10 schools and 10 businesses and raised over $10,000 for safe water projects through the collection of used shoes. As we were literally dropping off all the collection bins at the schools and businesses for our 2020 World Water Day shoe campaign, the world shut down due to COVID. Our collection bins were sitting in schools and businesses that were closed. We pivoted as quickly as possible to find another way to collect shoes during this time. On World Water Day, March 22, we had designated sites around the suburbs for “contactless” drop off sites. Thanks to the local TV stations and social media, our bins overflowed with shoes throughout the entire day.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
In January 2022, LucyClimbs expanded to implement a new way to raise funds for safe water by opening an Etsy shop selling LucyClimbs sweatshirts. To keep the cost down on the sweatshirts, my friend and I started making them at home on our own. It was fun and exciting until customers started reporting that the vinyl was peeling off the sweatshirts after being washed. I don’t know if I would define this mistake as “funny,” but we did laugh because we realized we had no idea what we were actually doing. We discovered that the vinyl we were using had to be applied to a sweatshirt that had a certain percentage of cotton. Thankfully, we were able to correct that mistake and the shop is up and running again. The lesson learned was to be sure to consult a professional and learn the business before you start making and selling apparel.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
After my first shoe drive was so successful, I wanted to expand and market the idea to other schools, but I knew I couldn’t manage the project on my own. I came up with an idea to create a WaterStep Chicago Teen Board that would consist of ten high school students at various schools throughout the western suburbs of Chicago and together we would manage all the logistics for the shoe drives. Since this was a huge project, I needed help from someone at WaterStep to design and produce marketing materials for us. As soon as I reached out to the marketing director at WaterStep, he was 100% supportive of my idea. Not only did they produce the marketing materials, he drove five hours from Louisville, Kentucky, to Naperville, Illinois, where I was currently living to deliver the materials and educate the entire Teen Board on ways to be successful. WaterStep’s support has been the driving force behind LucyClimbs success.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I am privileged to have witnessed first-hand the impact that safe water has had on the 1000+ residents of Atriri village from 2017–2022. Prior to my arrival in 2017 when the village’s only source of water was from a hole in the ground two miles away, desperation and despair plagued its residents. The cries of children rang through the streets as they stomached the pains of gastrointestinal issues and chronic diarrhea. The young and old fought to survive. Sickness and death due to water-related issues were a way of life. Children were unable to attend school regularly from the demands of fetching water and fighting chronic illness. Women spent their days fetching water, caring for their sick children, and fighting to find time to raise crops to feed their family. The two-mile trip to fetch water every day was dangerous. Women were raped, children bit by snakes, and dehydration led to exhaustion. The emptiness and despair in people’s eyes penetrated my soul and it ached.
When I returned to Atriri village in March 2022, five years after the installation of a community-wide safe water system that provided enough safe water for every resident, I witnessed a new village. My pen pal was applying to college and dreaming of a life as a lawyer. Her classmates were taking standardized tests in hopes of pursuing a higher education. The schools were full, and children were running around the recess yard playing soccer. One of the first things planned upon my arrival was a committee of women holding a meeting to share with me their aquaculture plans to raise and harvest fish as a sustainable source of food and income for the village. They showed me around their fields and described how they were raising crops more efficiently with access to more water. They shared with me how proud they were of their children’s academic success and showed me the upgrades to the school. The pride and hope that now flowed through the streets of Atriri was palpable. The people just looked healthier and their smiles reassured me that they were. A simple safe water system that cost $5000 revitalized an entire community. The woman and children are no longer consumed and burdened with the daily chore of fetching water, but instead they are dreaming and working hard for a better future and learning new ways to achieve that for their families.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve? Yes!
- For politicians. When I was in Kenya this past spring working on water projects, I had the opportunity to ask a former member of the National Assembly of Kenya why the government was not addressing the water crisis in their country. His answer, “We don’t have a plan.” Thankfully, the United Nations is hosting a Water Conference in New York City in March 2023 for this very purpose. Hopefully this conference will encourage world leaders and organizations to come together and develop a comprehensive plan.
- For society. We must care. We must educate ourselves about the pressing issues that need our time and attention to make this world a better place for all. And then, we must act. Find what you are passionate about and take action to make a positive difference on that issue.
- For community. Find a non-profit organization, like WaterStep, that aligns with your passion and learn how you can get involved. Most non-profits offer opportunities for community members to join their efforts in raising money to further the cause. Money, time, and a comprehensive plan are what we need to address the issues plaguing our society. Together, we can make a difference.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- Be patient. It’s exciting to start a new project, but it’s also important to realize when you are passionate about making a difference on a big issue, it takes time. A lot of time. I always remind myself, “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” Pace yourself. It took four years from the time I developed a passion to help my pen pal until I learned how I could actually help her. And then, after my initial trip to Uganda, it took over a year to figure out how I could continue to help. Be patient and allow the process to unfold one day at a time.
- Be confident. There will be many ups and downs along the way. Stay confident in your pursuit no matter the circumstances. When one door closes, another one will open. Talk to as many people as possible, so that you can continue to learn along the way. Your confidence will grow through each interaction and you will get better at sharing your story and project each day.
- Be resilient. When COVID hit, it felt like that was the end of our project. We had worked so hard for months to get everything ready and in order for our 2020 World Water Day shoe campaign and then every business and school closed two days before our collection began. It would have been easy to give up, but instead we encouraged one another and brainstormed ways that we could continue to collect shoes without human contact for World Water Day 2020. It was a lot of extra work, but our resilience paid off and we collected more shoes that year than ever before.
- Be inquisitive. It’s so important to ask questions and talk to people with knowledge of what you are trying to accomplish. It makes the process so much smoother and easier. By asking questions to business owners and school administrators, I learned that the needs of each location were different for their collection to be successful. If we would have tried to make every location the same, we would have never had the success we did.
- Be possible. Never stop believing what you are trying to accomplish is possible. It will be overwhelming and feel impossible at times, but hold on to the belief that it’s possible. When you feel discouraged, reach out to someone and talk about it. Replacing discouragement with encouragement keeps you moving forward one step at a time. And one step at a time is all it takes to reach the top of a mountain.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
“It’s truly a necessity to have a passion as a compass in life.” — Hilaree Nelson
For our generation, there is no greater cause to be passionate about than the preservation of our environment and equitable distribution of resources for all. With climate change increasing in severity and the social inequalities that plague our world, our generation must come together to collaboratively make a substantial difference before it’s too late. Living in the United States is a great privilege, but with privilege comes responsibilities. Our generation’s compass should be: “At the end of each day, be sure you gave back more than you took.” — unknown author
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to sit around a table with the leaders of UN-Water to discuss and understand exactly where we are in the process of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: “clean water and sanitation for all.” It would be great to have a clear picture of the intricacies of this challenge to understand how I could best tailor my education to be the most effective at contributing to reaching this goal.
How can our readers follow you online?
Blog coming soon @ www.lucyclimbs.com
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Young Change Makers: Why and How Lucy Westlake of LucyClimbs Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.