The story of the wells starts in 2009, when Summit County residents Karen and Ben Little traveled to Cambodia. They stopped in the city of Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, one of the most famous temple complexes and religious monuments in the world.
During the trip, the Littles hired a guide, a man named Saron Soeun, who they quickly connected with.
"We just really bonded with him, and at the end of the trip he asked us if we wanted to go into the countryside and see Cambodia, so we said yes," said Karen Little. "That's when we realized that there were people that had no water, no electricity and no sanitation."
The trip to Soeun's village opened their eyes, Little said. They learned that Souen, his family and most of his village fled the Khmer Rouge in 1976 during the civil war, crossing over the border to Thailand.
"When the war was over, the whole village came back and found everything had just been decimated," Little said. The knowledge of the history, combined with seeing the reality of the hard village life first-hand, motivated the Littles to see what they could do to help.
Upon returning to the United States, they got to work fundraising money for wells for the village. They began working through Lantern Projects, a nonprofit organization that helps raise funds for various small projects throughout the world. By partnering with Lantern Projects, the Littles not only insured tax deductions for donations but also that 100 percent of money donated would go directly to the cause, without being diverted by any administration fees.
Through the help of friends and family, enough money was raised for five wells in 2009, then another 10 in 2010, which they then doubled in 2011. Each well costs $220 and are generally provided for widows, widowers and people with physical disabilities. The rest of the village benefits too, as people will make the much shorter trek to their neighbor's well for potable water, rather than miles away to the nearest pond or river. Since its start in 2009, the water project has brought more than 180 wells to rural families in the Siem Reap province.
Last year, Karen Little signed up as a mentor with the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Summit Cove Elementary School. While there, she paired with a group of five fifth-graders who were working on their exhibition project.
The purpose of the IB program is to promote global awareness through internationally minded lessons and projects. The students, with Karen, focused their concentration on global water issues, eventually narrowing it down to one country - Cambodia.
"I think I kind of loaded the dice," said Little with a laugh, explaining how she shared her own knowledge of Cambodian rural life with the students, bringing them photos of Soeun's village.
"I had a lot of information on Cambodia, so I think that made it up close for them," she said. "I think it hit home for them, the have and the have-not situation."
"It made me want to help them," said Maison Keen, of seeing Little's photos.
One part of the project the students worked on included raising awareness among their classmates of water usage and water waste, so they had their classmates chart their water usage for several days and look at the result.
"I think people take water for granted," said Cooper Orr, now a sixth-grader at Summit Middle School. "When they made the water chart and wrote everything down, they actually figured out, 'oh my gosh, that's so much water.'"
"We don't really need to think about it, or really care about it, but when you think of it from their (Cambodians') perspective, you're like, 'oh wow,'" said classmate Mac Hiller.
Cooper, Mac and their classmates said the photos and stories from Little motivated them to go further with their project. They made ceramic cups and worked out deals with local businesses to leave the cups in the store to collect change for the charity, then later sold the cups at their exhibition last May, raising a total of $440.
That wasn't enough, however, and the students brought their project idea to Jennifer Kempner, manager at U.S. Bank in Frisco. Impressed with their project, Kempner pledged that the bank would match the donations they received, bringing the total to $880. This provided two wells for a junior high school, a cement pipe well for a rural family and ceramic filters for those wells, in addition to several other wells nearby. The wells at the junior high bear the following inscription: "A gift of safe water - Summit Cove Elementary 5th graders, Colorado, USA."
"It makes you feel proud, it makes you happy," said Cooper, of knowing that he and his classmates had helped. "They don't have water, they don't have all the things we have."
"I was happy that I did it," said Sara Speedy. Her classmate, Kevin Sosa, added "For me, it felt good, because we helped them."
"If we didn't have the group, we couldn't have done it," Sara said.
Karen and Ben Little continue to work to raise money for wells in the area. A recent wine and cheese fundraiser brought in $4,481, which includes five wells pledged by Summit County residents and three wells pledged by the Rotary Club of Summit County. In addition to wells, the Littles plan to build a library for the village.
Despite the fact that Cambodia is on the opposite side of the world, Karen Little said that the people she's spoken to have been willing to help in any way they can.
"I think Summit County is very globally aware," she said. "We have people from Summit County that go on mission trips, we have doctors like Doctor PJ. This is a very unique county as far as its global awareness and commitment, so we have been really well-received."
One great thing about being so directly involved with the project, Little said, is being able to show people photos of the direct results of their donations.
"If we get a check from somebody for a well, in six months they know that the well has been drilled and they have a picture of the family," she said. She and Ben plan to keep traveling to Cambodia. "We want to go back to our supporters and say, 'we saw your wells in operation.'"