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Rachel's legacy: Year after girl's death, mom goes to Africa to honor her clean-water wish

Courtesy of charity:water

Rachel Beckwith asked friends to donate to her favorite charity rather than give her gifts for her ninth birthday.

All Rachel Beckwith wanted for her ninth birthday was for people less fortunate than her to be able to have clean water to drink. Now, a year after Rachel’s death, her mother is traveling to Africa to see firsthand how her daughter’s wish has come true for thousands of people she never met.

Samantha Paul, of Bellevue, Wash., accompanied by her church pastor and others, is traveling to the Tigray region of Ethiopia to visit the communities that now have access to clean water because of Rachel’s wish.


“The biggest thing I’m looking  forward to is seeing the actual wells where the people, because of Rachel, are going to be able to have clean water," Paul said in a telephone interview Thursday, "seeing other 9-year-old children and their moms knowing that they're going to have a 10th, 11th and 12th birthday and so on because of Rachel’s heart.”

Rachel, the girl with a big smile and giving spirit, wanted to raise $300 by her ninth birthday on June 12, 2011, for charity: water, a New York-based nonprofit that works to bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. She started her online campaign after hearing Scott Harrison, founder of charity:water, speak at her church, EastLake Community Church in Bothell, Wash. Instead of birthday gifts, Rachel asked that people donate to the charity.

Rachel fell a little bit short of her goal by the time she turned nine. A few weeks later, on July 20, 2011, Rachel, her younger sister Sienna and their mother were in a car on Interstate 90 east of Seattle when a semitrailer jackknifed into a logging truck, sending logs spilling onto the highway. In the ensuing chain reaction, the semi rear-ended Paul’s car, critically injuring Rachel, who was in the backseat. She was taken off life support and died at a Seattle hospital on July 23, 2011.

Word of Rachel’s birthday wish spread quickly after her death and her story was picked up by national news outlets including NBC News, The New York Times and CNN. Donations to charity: water in her name -- some from strangers across the world -- took off. In just a few weeks, pledges for the Rachel’s Wish campaign topped $1.2 million.

The money is going to projects that will bring clean drinking water to 60,000 people in Ethiopia, according to charity: water.

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Ethiopia, a landlocked country of nearly 85 million in the Horn of Africa, is consistently hard-hit by drought and famine. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and it’s estimated that only a quarter of its residents have reliable access to clean drinking water.

“Rachel’s lasting legacy will be seen in the lives and smiles of thousands of children like her that will now have access to life’s most basic need -- clean and safe drinking water,” Harrison said in a press release.

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EastLake Community Church, a longtime supporter of charity: water, has raised more than $400,000 for clean water projects. The church and its members are hosting a fundraising event called Drinks4Drinks on Aug. 3 to continue to raise awareness for the developing world’s water crisis.

'This changed actual lives'
Paul, her parents and Pastor Ryan Meeks were among those departing for northern Ethiopia on Thursday night for a weeklong visit to villages where drinking water wells are being built. Harrison and other charity: water officials will also be on the trip.

"We're going to actually see the work done," Meeks told KOMO News last week. "It's one thing to have your heartstrings pulled on and give money to something, but it's another thing to actually see the work proven. This went somewhere. This changed actual lives and here they are."

A year after Rachel's death, Paul said she's still surprised at how her daughter has touched the hearts of so many strangers.

"A lot of kids look forward to birthdays and Christmas. She realized she didn't need anything for her birthday, she had enough. It's amazing that a 9-year-old could grasp that concept," Paul said.

The campaign continues with her family’s Rachel's Birthday Wish for Sienna page on charity: water's website.

Rachel isn’t the only “celebrity” who has inspired a giving campaign to bring clean water to Ethiopia. Hollywood couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia with charity: water to see the impact of their fund-raising efforts. They visited schools and communities benefiting from new wells and spent time with villagers.

In 2010, the Smiths opted to forgo presents for their birthdays in favor of donations to charity:water and asked their fans to do the same. The couple’s efforts reportedly raised more than $789,000 for charity: water.

Previous stories on Rachel:

9-year-old girl’s clean water wish takes off after her death
Rachel’s legacy inspires other kids to give
Video: After death, girl inspires $1 million in donations