RALEIGH — Five years ago, Doc Hendley was a tattooed, Harley-riding bartender at Raleigh's Hibernian Pub, and nobody would have pictured him dodging bullets in Sudan, hauling clean water to refugees.
But the 30-year-old Hendley got inspired behind the bar, and today his nonprofit group, Wine to Water, has dug, repaired and sanitized drinking wells for 25,000 people in five Third World countries. It's an idea that started with wine tastings and a humble donation jar.
Hendley's work won him a nomination for CNN's Hero of the Year, one of 10 people worldwide selected by a blue-ribbon panel that includes Elton John, Whoopi Goldberg and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Hendley's charity earns $25,000 just for being nominated, and if he wins, he gets $100,000 more - enough to provide water for 6,000 people.
Hendley, whose real and rarely used name is Dickson, will be honored at noon today on the N.C. State University Brickyard, a rally attended by Chancellor Jim Woodward and Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker. It's a long way from the bar of the Hibernian. But if you knew Hendley when he was a free spirit just out of NCSU and searching for a meaningful path, the transformation makes perfect sense.
"When I first met Doc, he was this crazy bartender guy who rode a Harley, all tatted up," said Gerry McDermott, manager at Hibernian. "But Doc's got a heart of gold. The more I got to know him, the more I saw things got to him, like poverty. You could always see his head going around and saying, 'How can I fix that?'"
Hendley's work aims to help the 1.1 billion people worldwide who lack access to clean water, a figure estimated by the World Health Organization. Nearly two-thirds of that group lives in Asia. In sub-Saharan Africa, 42 percent of the population lives without yard taps, household connections or other improvements to sanitize water.
Unsafe water can bring on diarrheal diseases such as cholera, which kill 1.8 billion people each year, nearly all of them children under 5 in developing countries.
Donations but no plan
Hendley first saw statistics such as these when he was a communications major and senior at N.C. State in 2003, already working and playing guitar in bars around Raleigh. The numbers staggered him. He couldn't believe he hadn't heard about water as he'd heard about food shortages or the global AIDS epidemic.
He organized a wine tasting at a now-defunct nightclub and made $6,000. In less than a year, without once charging admission, Hendley held more tastings and raised $40,000. He already had the Wine to Water idea; he just lacked a structure for it.
"I'd never done anything like that," he explained. "But I was a bartender, and every day, day-in and day-out, you've got your regulars coming in, and they're either going to share some sob story or a good moment, like they just got married. Every day you're building relationships."
Hendley had donations in hand but no idea where to put the money. So he went home to Boone and met Ken Isaacs, a vice president with Samaritan's Purse, an international relief group headed by Franklin Graham. Issacs had already spent decades working on international aid.
"He said, 'When I was a bartender in Raleigh, a lot of people came in the bar and they were looking for God in their life,'" Isaacs said. "He saw so many people spending time in bars sort of drinking and wanted to know what good could come out of that."
Isaacs told him to keep the money and take a job with him. Go to Darfur for a year, he told Hendley, and you can learn about water firsthand. Since 2003, thousands have died and been displaced there in the struggle between the Sudanese government and rebels who accuse it of backing Arabs over Africans.
Trained in Sudan by Samaritan's Purse, Hendley learned he could often repair a broken well for $30 while another aid group dug a new one for $10,000. He worked in dozens of refugee camps, often inside the United Nations' dangerous "no-go" zones, distributing water or chlorine tablets to people with only plastic sheeting for shelter.
"Sometimes," he said, "we were trucking water to people who were hunkering in the desert."
'They tried to kill me'
One day, he was on a typical mission with one other aid worker when his truck was attacked by the Janjaweed, gunmen fighting the several Sudanese rebel groups, often accused of mass killings, rapes and forced displacement. Five bullets struck the truck and shattered the windshield, but no one was hurt.
"They tried to kill me," Hendley said, five years removed from the event. "They shot up the truck with machine guns, and there were a lot of bullets coming right at me."
Hendley left Darfur after a year and kept bartending in Boone, slowly building his charity events. Then in 2007, Wine to Water became a full-fledged nonprofit with tax-exempt status. The group has two full-time employees and scores of volunteers, including several in African countries, along with a board of seasoned international aid workers who guide Wine to Water's projects. Wine and food events continue around the country, feeding the water supply fund. This year, Hendley could finally give up bartending and donate all his time to water, which he did.
But he still calls on the skills he learned in the Hibernian, where his old boss McDermott describes him as having the conversational skills to talk with a 90-year-old woman and a 3-year-old girl at the same time.
Hendley calls himself proof that anyone, even a tattooed keg-tapper, can cure what ails the world.
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