March 2, 2011
11-51

Alumnus Defies Thirst

VALDOSTA -- Stephen Dupuis, ’08, and Matt Turner may not leap tall buildings in a single bound, but the best of friends aim to save the world -- one impoverished community at a time.

“We truly believe that this generation has the capacity to make a difference, save not just a few lives, but many, and in the process learn a bit about who we are and the common bonds that exist between all mankind,” said Dupuis, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts. “We are committed to making a difference -- one person, one village, one nation at a time.”

The two met in 2007 at a Christian summer camp, where talks of past trips to developing countries hijacked traditional fireside chitchat. A year passed as Dupuis and Turner finished their degrees. Backed with academic credentials, the two adventurers embarked on their first joint enterprise -- to save the world.

“A couple of years ago I was on a mission trip to Haiti, and all I saw was a country of people with no hope, no future and no material possessions,” said Turner, who earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of Georgia. “I was so devastated by what I saw that I vowed to never return to a place like that again. But slowly my heart changed. More than 4,500 children die each year of diarrhea. These aren’t just numbers they are unique individuals each with unique hopes, unique futures and unique dreams. I met Stephen, and we decided to take action to provide people with the fundamental need for clean drinking water.”

In 2009, the then 23-year-olds established 501(c)3 non-profit Defiant Missions. The main branch of the organization is a movement called Defy Thirst, which strives to empower developing nations through sanitation education and the sharing of efficient, inexpensive water filtration technology. The two spent days and nights in Turner’s garage, cutting pipes and hoses to develop filtration prototypes. They visited churches, colleges and community groups to drum up support for their passionate pursuits; created blogs and a website (www.defythirst.org) to spread their message to the world.

“I would love to show you what poor really looks like,” Dupuis said. “In Manta, Ecuador, people are living beneath stick tents in city dumps. When a dump truck drives up to drop off a load of muck, people of all ages come running out from the rubble. They are covered in filth and boils. Those types of images never leave you.”

Since January, Defy Thirst has initiated projects in Ecuador, Ghana, Haiti and the United States. Vea-village, Ghana, has one doctor for every 193,000 people. By the end of July, Defy Thirst installed 50 home filtration systems for families in the mountainous region. Ecuador’s Montanita Verde Children’s Home in San Lorenzo spent its entire savings to purchase a $10,000 water tank that was contaminated in weeks. Dupuis and Turner installed a solar-powered purification system that pumps enough water so that the orphanage can sell it in town at $7 per 5 gallons. The Wahsega 4H Camp in Dahlonega, Ga., now has a rainwater purification system for campers exploring the North Georgia Mountains. The group plans to expand operations to India before the end of 2010.

“We are planning on traveling to the second most highly populated country in the world -- India. With over a billion people in need of water, rivers are becoming toxic,” said Turner, who worked as a microbiologist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Instead of bringing life, they are becoming liquid graveyards. With this knowledge, we are anxious to get there and build sustainable and reliable systems that will save thousands from a premature death.”

Holistic missions

The organization embraces holistic missions. Too many well-intentioned aid groups go into a country, Dupuis said, and focus on one project -- often without understanding the culture and/or consequences of their involvement. The issues of poor, disenfranchised communities are mangled webs of political, cultural and socioeconomic issues. Defy Thirst’s main mission is to assist people in gaining access to the “nectar of life” -- fresh, clean water; but the group doesn’t ignore other needs in the community. They construct homes, establish medical facilities and community gardens, initiate educational programs and encourage the formation of structured civic engagement.

“Water is the lifeblood of any community. We’ve seen water breathe life into people, but we’ve also seen a group build a water system in one community that incites a civil war among area tribes,” said Dupuis, who is from Warner Robins, Ga. “We are adamant on building relationships with the people in the community because we have the intention of returning and investing in their lives for the next 20 years as we implement our total community intervention plan.”

Their integrated approach to service ties them to people and communities. Defy Thirst volunteers remember the names of the people they serve -- like Fedner, who regularly invites refugees into his 10-foot-by-10-foot home, which he shares with his wife and 10 children; or Dorf, a Haitian boy who ate mud paste like it was the finest of chocolates. Defy Thirst volunteer Jill Harboldt said she considers Dorf one of her greatest love stories -- his soul imprinted on her heart.

“I believe that traveling unstitches parts of your heart and does some rearranging. It puts some stuff in but it takes some stuff out too. I just happened to leave part of my heart with a 3-year-old named Dorf,” Harboldt wrote in the Defy Thirst blog. “By the beginning of the second week, Dorf’s Mom did something I will never forget. She asked me to take him with me. Because of the dire condition in Haiti, the most loving, selfless thing she could do was to give up her only son. I was honored and broken at the same time.”

Renaissance men

Dupuis and Turner’s passion for change has fueled the renaissance men to continually build skills to impact these desperate regions of the world. Dupuis is learning Spanish, reading up on crop rotation and familiarizing himself with software to update the website when Turner is working abroad. Turner enrolled in Emory’s renowned School of Public Health to further understand the systemic epidemic; he ever tinkers with hoses and tanks in his Atlanta garage, searching for even more efficient and less expensive solutions to sanitation problems.

To fund their nonprofit work, the two created Defiant Photography, a for-profit business that photographs everything from weddings and commercial architectural projects to extreme sporting events and senior portraits. Defiant, at www.defiantphotography.com, is the official photographer for the Georgia Xterra Series, Dirty Spokes Series, and the Chain Buster racing series.

“We love capturing life in all of its forms,” said Dupuis. “Our team of six photographers, including Matt and myself, each have a specialty; and we all feel blessed that our hobby has been able to sustain our passion for serving others. We have even branched into videography, specifically to help other nonprofits make quality testimonials to encourage giving.”

Funding their message

The group is focused on spreading its message among a busy citizenry who rarely stops between sips of cappuccinos and cell phone conversations to consider the plights of people in other countries. Beyond presentations to area colleges and service organization, Defy Thirst sent two Valdosta State University student volunteers -- Josh Ringer and Trey McHugh -- to travel the country with Warped Tour music festival. Ringer, a senior history major, said the pair has been selling Defy Thirst merchandise and promoting the group’s activities to teens and young adults.

“Helping with Defy Thirst has been so rewarding not only because of the life experiences I personally have taken away, but because I have been able to be a part of something bigger than myself and interact with people who are truly interested and excited about what Defy Thirst is doing,” said Ringer, who is from Eatonton, Ga. “With such a big global issue facing our world, it’s important to get out as much awareness as possible -- which is our biggest concern at places like Warped Tour and the Bonnaroo Festival.”

Fundraising is a major part of their work. Both Dupuis and Turner dislike asking for money, but with a goal to bring in $1 million next year, the pair can’t let their reluctance be an obstacle to fueling their mission.

“Right now we do everything on a volunteer basis. One hundred percent of donations go directly into the people and towns we serve,” said Dupuis, who plans to ride his bike across the U.S. to raise money for the organization. “The organization is not Christian based, but we are guided by our faith and called to love. I think people pick up on that genuine desire, and that drive makes it easier to ask people to give what they can to those in need.”