Walking for water, riding for life

“My overshirt is off, my hat is off, and I’m really sucking air at this point.”

This is a snapshot of Mark Smith struggling with a 55-pound jug of water in the middle of sweltering Ethiopia. It certainly isn’t where you’d expect to find the owner of the most successful Harley Davidson shop in the United States.

But then, there’s a lot about Mark and his wife Jennifer’s story that’s surprising -- right from the start.

“Our experience with World Vision actually began at a Christian rock concert in 2004,” Jennifer said, explaining how the couple was drawn to a table on child sponsorship. “We looked down and saw all these little faces looking up at us.”

And there began their partnership with World Vision. Fast forward a few years more, and the Smiths became parents and owners of the Fort Worth Harley Davidson store, a store that has seen growth and success over the years.

Then came another call -- this time, in the form of the book The Hole in Our Gospel by Rich Stearns, president of World Vision U.S. For Jennifer, it was the facts about dirty water and the toll it takes on children that caught her attention. Women and girls in Africa spend an average of four to six hours a day fetching water. And there’s no guarantee that that water won’t make their families sick with parasites or diarrhea.

“It broke my heart because I could not imagine giving my babies dirty water because we don’t have any other water to drink,” Jennifer said.

So they began organizing the annual Harley “Water4Life Ride” to raise money for boreholes, and in the process, breaking every possible stereotype as hundreds of manly Harley riders in leather vests showed their heart for children they’ve never even met.

The Smiths also learned about World Vision’s Campaign For Every Child and the goal of providing clean water to 6 million people over the next five years. The news came just as Mark and Jennifer prepared to pay off their loan on the Harley store -- a joyful moment after 15 years of hard work starting up the business.

“When we heard more about this unbelievable campaign, this unbelievable rescue mission, we felt this pull that we needed to be a part of this,” Mark said. “But I fought it. I said, ‘God, we’re finally out of debt.’ God had other plans.”

So on the same day they wrote the final loan check to the bank, Mark and Jennifer walked out to their car, called World Vision, and pledged to give.

That pledge brings us back to Mark in Ethiopia with the 55-pound jerry can. But when he describes today what he remembers best, it isn’t the hot sun or the weight of the water. It’s a person you might miss if you just glance at the photo: a young mother named Burka, walking just to the left of Mark. She walked alongside him the whole way, first as a stranger fascinated by the unusual sight of this man from thousands of miles away doing work that is typically reserved for women.

Walking for water, riding for life | World Vision Blog Mark Smith with his travel companion, Burka, while he carries a 55-pound water jug in Ethiopia. (Photo: World Vision)

“My travel companion was really getting worried for me, and when I tried to set the jug down, she tried to take it from me. Never mind there’s a baby on her back,” Mark said.

At the end of the trek, she even offered to get Mark some milk -- to help strengthen the bones and muscles of this American who had struggled so much with the task she does several times a day. It’s her face the Smith family sees when they go to work each day.

Now, instead of a mortgage, cars, or other possessions, the family works to bring Burka’s village clean water.

“I can’t express how rewarding it is that every day I go to work I’m working for something more,” Mark said.


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