Inspired by her experience teaching in Africa, Megan Renfro ’07 devotes her career to H2o access there.
By Sherrie Negrea
Hear Megan talk about her work: scene.geneseo.edu/web-exclusives
For decades, the residents of the tiny village of Maiwayna in northern Ethiopia suffered from diarrhea and chronic stomach aches. The problem was their source of drinking water: a pond contaminated with animal feces and insects.
Then in May of 2017, a crowd of residents watched as fresh, clean groundwater burst from the earth. A drilling rig had hit water. Megan Renfro ’07, an administrator at charity: water, a New York City-based nonprofit, was there to witness it. “It was pretty cool to see in person something I had only seen in our videos and photos,” Renfro says.
The new well, built by an Ethiopian-based nonprofit that works with charity: water, meant that residents would no longer get sick from drinking polluted water, or and have to worry about caring for their children when they were dehydrated or ill.
Founded in 2006, charity: water has raised more than $250 million to fund nearly 28,000 water projects in 26 developing countries by working with local nonprofits in each community. Renfro is part of this effort.
Renfro first encountered the water crisis in Africa in 2009, when she volunteered as a teacher in a children’s home in Uganda with the nonprofit organization, United Planet. After a well near the home broke down for three weeks, she and about a dozen children, all carrying plastic, five-gallon jerry cans, traipsed 30 minutes every day to retrieve their drinking water from another well with a handpump.
It wasn’t until she began volunteering for charity: water in 2011 that Renfro realized how easy her trek to secure potable water in Uganda had been. “In other places, it takes two to two and half hours each way to get water that in many cases isn’t even clean,” she says. “It made my 15 minutes in Uganda look like nothing.”
Renfro, who grew up in Fairport, N.Y., was inspired to travel to Uganda to teach for a year because of the values she learned from her parents, who believe in giving back to their community. “I was raised by my parents with the mindset that we’ve been blessed and it is part of our responsibility to pay that forward,” she says.
While attending Geneseo, Renfro continued to help with the Sunday Dinner Ministries, a program started by her father that provides a free community meal in churches in the Fairport area. She also worked as a camp architect and counselor for the Rochester Young Scholars Academy at Geneseo (RYSAG), a program that brings Rochester middle and high school students to attend an overnight summer camp on campus that focuses on science and other disciplines.
After returning from Uganda, Renfro moved to New York City and worked as an executive assistant and word processor for a financial services firm. But her passion was still rooted in the nonprofit world.
“I came out of the experience in Uganda just wanting to make that idea of giving back to the global community a career,” she says. “I loved learning about a different culture, and I wanted whatever I was doing to be something I was passionate about.”
In 2011, she began volunteering for charity: water’s annual gala, and began spending her free time helping there as a receptionist.
Five years after she began volunteering for charity: water, Renfro was hired as the water program coordinator and provided overall administrative support to staff working on projects throughout Africa and Southeast Asia. Last July, she was promoted to water programs associate and now handles grants with partners in six African countries.
Renfro says she is inspired by the people who work at charity: water and is proud of the nonprofit’s commitment to channel 100 percent of all public donations into the field. “I love that this is a place where you never feel like you can’t ask someone a question,” she says. “It’s a very collaborative atmosphere where everyone is working toward the same goal.”