The GSB Interview: Nicole Woodie, Manager, Chris Long Foundation’s “Waterboys”

Back in January, GreenSportsBlog ran a short feature in a News & Notes column about Waterboys.org, a nonprofit that funds the digging of wells in water-deprived areas of Tanzania in East Africa. Founded by Chris Long, the defensive end who was, at the time of our story, about to win a Super Bowl for the New England Patriots and has since moved down I-95 to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, Waterboys is halfway to its goal of spearheading the digging of 32 wells. We received far more comments than usual on this post, with readers wanting to learn more. So today, we bring you our interview with Nicole Woodie, President of Fruition Giving, a philanthropy-consulting firm. Ms. Woodie manages Waterboys on behalf of the Chris Long Foundation.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Nicole, I have to tell you…GreenSportsBlog readers responded to our January story on Chris Long and Waterboys at an unusually high rate. They wanted to know more so I am glad to dig in to it with you. How did you get to work on Waterboys?

Nicole Woodie: Well, Lew, I got there by sort of a circuitous route. I started out as a political fundraiser in Missouri…

GSB: How did you get into that, especially at a young age? Sounds like an interesting story in itself…

 

Nicole Woodie 1

Nicole Woodie, President of Fruition Giving (Photo credit: Nicole Woodie)

 

NW: It started when my aunt decided to run for statewide office as Attorney General. She needed help in fundraising, I thought I’d be good at it and I thought she’d be a great AG so I gave it a shot. I started to have some success raising money and eventually became the campaign’s finance director. We ended up losing but I was able to get more work. Most notably, I worked as Finance Director for Robin Carnahan in her campaign for Secretary of State, which she won, and then as her deputy Finance Director for her unsuccessful US Senate bid.

GSB: You must have learned a ton…

NW: No doubt about it. But, while I was successful as a political fundraiser, what I really wanted to work in was sports—I love sports—and particularly sports philanthropy. So I pivoted to the world of community outreach. I got an internship with the St. Louis Rams and waited tables to earn some cash. And then, in 2011, the Rams hired me to work full time in community outreach, with a focus on getting players involved with causes and nonprofits that fit their individual interests.

GSB: That is a terrific story, Nicole! And now I see how you connected with Chris, as the club selected him out of the University of Virginia with the second overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.

NW: That’s right. I started working with him on his community programs in St. Louis. What you have to know about Chris is this: When he gets passionate about a cause, he goes after it 100 percent.

GSB: So how did it play out that Chris ended up starting Waterboys and what is your role in the organization?

NW: OK, first let’s go back to 2013. That’s when Chris and his teammate James Hall climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. When they came down the mountain and toured the villages, Chris saw poverty like he’d never seen before. He was struck both by the tragic conditions in which the people lived and by their resiliency and the beauty of the area. He resolved that he didn’t want to just be a tourist and had to do something. 

GSB: What was that something?

NW: He wasn’t sure. But then came a chance encounter at a hotel bar while Chris was having a beer.

GSB: This sounds like we’re getting into film noir territory. Did it involve a blonde in a trench coat?

NW: Hardly. He hears a recognizable voice from behind him belt out “Chris Long!” It turns out the voice belongs to Fox’ lead NFL broadcaster and St. Louis Cardinals announcer Joe Buck. He was there with Doug Pitt, Brad’s brother…

GSB: …You cannot make this up!!!

NW: You’re right, Lew. Doug Pitt was a goodwill ambassador to Tanzania at the time and was there with Buck on a water project. They asked Chris to join them but he couldn’t. But, when he returned to St. Louis he set about educating himself on the water crisis, talked to Doug Pitt some more and then he started the Chris Long Foundation in 2015, with Waterboys launching in August of that year.

GSB: And where did you come in?

NW: At around that time I had decided to leave the Rams and go out on my own to broaden my impact in sports philanthropy. Chris brought me on to run and manage the foundation and, ultimately, Waterboys.

GSB: What does that mean?

NW: I handle administration, events, fundraising, PR and the back end…

GSB: Basically, you do it all. Impressive. Back to the “Birth of Waterboys” story…

NW: Yes…So, back in 2015, if you recall that was around the time of the Ice Bucket Challenge which raised millions of dollars for ALS research. Chris was amazed at the power of social media and collective action could do. And then he thought ‘We need to do this with water.’ Then he put pen to paper and Waterboys was born. Chris realized several crucial facts: 1. Water is a life-death issue. 2. Solutions exist to the water crisis. 3. Solving that crisis will allow water to transform communities by leading to economic growth, increased education and gender equality. He asked himself how he could involve the league and its players, thinking, ‘If I can get guys in each NFL market to get involved, we’ll get more people to care.’ So the idea to fund the digging of 32 wells, one for each team, was born. We recruited one player from each team. By August 2015, we had gotten 22 Waterboys from 21 NFL teams. Each player donated or assisted in raising funds and asked his fans to do the same.

GSB: That’s incredible. How involved was Chris personally?

NW: He was working on this every week, even in-season.

GSB: So with all of this activity, how many wells have actually been built?

NW: At this point we’ve completed the digging of 16 wells with funding in place for five more. This means 66,000 people now have clean drinking water. When the five that are funded are completed, the number of people served will be in the 70,000-80,000 range.

 

Waterboys 1

Chris Long (2nd from right) was in East Africa in 2015 for the digging of Waterboys’ first well. (Photo credit: Waterboys)

 

 

Waterboys 2

The fruits of Waterboys’ labors, fresh drinking water. (Photo credit: Waterboys)

 

GSB: When do you project that all 32 wells will be funded?

NW: We’re looking at 2018…

GSB: That is a rapid pace…

NW: That’s the only way Chris knows how to work.

GSB: Now, how does Waterboys go about getting the wells dug?

NW: The Chris Long Foundation funds the wells and the digging of them. WorldServe International, on whose board Doug Pitt sits…

GSB: …Brad’s brother!

NW: …the very same. Anyway World Serve International does the work in country. All of the wells are built using Tanzanian crews. Each one serves up to 7,500 people. Solar panels generate the power to operate the wells. The community pays a tiny fee to use the wells, which pays for the upkeep. And everyone in the community where the wells exist gets access to them, which keeps corruption out.

GSB: This is such an amazing program! What are your plans to scale this to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere? Will you broaden Waterboys to sports other than football?

NW: Our goal is to get water to 1 million people so we are looking at bringing athletes from other sports into the mix. The plan for now is to stay in East Africa, as the need there is massive and acute.

GSB: Got it. OK, I gotta ask one last question. I saw recently that ex-Steelers quarterback; NFL legend and Fox NFL Today host Terry Bradshaw made a big donation to Waterboys. Tell us how that happened…

NW: Terry of course works with Howie Long, Chris’ dad, on NFL Today. He calls Chris his godson. Terry had heard about Waterboys, did a feature on it on the Super Bowl pregame show. So he and his wife committed to fund the balance of well number 17 and gave an additional $45,000 to fund their own well. And Terry pushed a video about Waterboys through churches in Pittsburgh, resulting in funding of yet another well.

GSB: Great job by Terry Bradshaw. OK, I lied. I have one more question. Climate change is likely exacerbating the water crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, including in Tanzania. Where does climate change fit in Chris’ calculus with Waterboys?

NW: Chris sees that climate change clearly goes hand in hand with water issues and is likely making it much worse. Waterboys’ main focus is getting to water to people who need it but climate change is something that will be part of the conversation as we plan for the future.

 


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