VENICE, Fla. (AP) - At the crossroads age of 19, when countless college students are still on the fence about their majors, Sophie Hollingsworth is pushing her career agenda at a brisk pace, almost as if time is running out. And in a sense, it is.
This summer, the rising New York University sophomore decided to clang the bell for three things she urgently needs: American Airlines frequent flier miles, glitter, and crayons.
Because there's a village in a remote region of Nicaragua - you need a rental vehicle, horses and river-forging pangas to reach it - with dreadful drinking-water and sanitation conditions. And the 2012 Pine View School graduate has given villagers her word that she will return, with water purifiers, in January.
The place is called Karahola, population 300-400, maybe, near the Caribbean coast, and Hollingsworth isn't naive enough to expect an overnight fix. In fact, what she does know is that Karahola could have all the potable water in the world, and her vision wouldn't stand a chance without educating the kids.
So Hollingsworth's plan also includes distributing coloring books in Spanish illustrating the neglected basics of hygiene, such as washing your hands before eating, and playing games like duck-duck goose, using glitter gimmicks, to show children how diseases are transmitted and prevented.
"Adults are not very open to changing their lifestyles," says Hollingsworth who, three years ago, founded AquaAid International in hopes of turning it into a 501(c)3. "But if you can get children to participate in the development process, they become agents of change for their community."
At 5-foot-3, the wispy 112-pound teenager could be easily underestimated. But one of her biggest supporters says it's "better to get behind her than get left behind"; another who's watched Hollingsworth navigate cultural and legal complexities salutes her ability to "dive into situations without a sense of fear or of getting doors shut in her face."
On a dark afternoon at the north Venice gated-neighborhood home she shares with a younger sister and her single mom, classical music playing softly in the background, Hollingsworth acknowledges that "we come from a world where we have so much." Then she rattles off statistics from yet another world, where so many have so little.
To wit: The World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate just 68 percent of rural Nicaraguans consume safe drinking water, and that a mere 37 percent have access to sanitation. Her AquaAid goal, with the help of a few benefactors, is to bring some relief to a little community so obscure, it's unlikely that most Nicaraguans have even heard of it.
Hollingsworth is procuring portable water filters - ranging from $60 to $140 apiece - capable of distilling anywhere from 150 to 360 gallons a day, with the potential for reducing waterborne illnesses by 75 percent. A United Nations study indicates that every dollar spent on clean water and sanitation can return $4 to $12 in increased economic opportunities.
"The filters take only 15 minutes to put together and they're easy to clean," says the global public health major. "And they don't need a lot of maintenance, either."
It's a little hard to say where, precisely, this awareness of the big picture originated. Maybe it started with Hollingsworth's first trip abroad, at 13, to Australia, under a People To People Ambassador Program. Maybe the appetite for adventure began when she started sailing at a young age. For the last three summers, in fact, she has worked as a deck hand/stewardess in the yacht business, and she earned her 200-ton MCA Yachtmaster captain's license this month.
And it was a sailing expedition that eventually drew her to Nicaragua.
In 2009, Hollingsworth was studying with Lifeworks International, the Sarasota-based, education-at-sea program that aspires to make goodwill envoys out of students studying everything from marine biology to oceanography.
Her boat dropped anchor off the Panamanian island of Bahia Honda, where they were met by canoe-paddling residents concerned for the safety of their recently installed below-water pipeline. The plumbing ran fresh potable water to Bahia Honda from a nearby island.
Among the islanders Hollingsworth met were two little girls, maybe 6 and 8 years old, for whom the pipeline meant they could finally attend school; previously, they would spend the better part of the day traveling to another island and fetching the water themselves.
"They were really excited about going to school for the first time, but they only had one pencil between them," Hollingsworth recalls. "Well, I went back to the boat and grabbed as many pencils as I could find for them."
The encounter was a revelation. One of her crewmates, a young man from Nicaragua named Simon Espinoza, would eventually tell Hollingsworth about how his own little town back home faced similar water woes.
"He told us the river where people bathed was the main source of water, and that there were some wells there, only a few meters deep, unlined, not covered," she recalls. "I thought, yes, this is exactly the kind of project I'm looking for."
That, coupled with Hollingsworth's invitation to become a debutante, gave rise to her AquaAid project.
"I was absolutely flattered and honored to get that invitation," she says. "But when I realized the huge commitment it required - both time-wise and financially - I thought I'd rather do something more fitting to my spirit. I mean, if I'm going to commit to something, it's going to involve bringing people clean water and sanitation."
Hollingsworth started researching existing projects, but found nothing that matched her own ideas about combining education with sustainability. She began studying how to start a non-profit.
"Oh, she did it all herself, all the paperwork, all the investigation - I did nothing," says Sarasota entrepreneur Douglas Baker, now an AquaAid International board member. "We'd set aside some time to talk about laying out timelines, getting a clear idea of what she wanted to achieve, how to think strategically and tactically, how to generate money, how to reach the market, how you manage your people. And Sophie got it."
Also in her corner was Jack Pincus, who ran the Lifeworks International trip that inspired Hollingsworth in 2009. He was impressed by the "certain genius and magic in Sophie's boldness" to convert designs into action.
"If there's anything I've learned working with her on this project, it's that, at the end of the day, Sophie will find a way to achieve her goals and make it work. There were a few times where I thought that Sophie was pushing the limits of what was achievable, but she always, always pulls it off."
In fact, Pincus would not only join AquaAid's board, he would accompany Hollingsworth on her inaugural journey to rugged Karahola, Nicaragua, in April 2012. They had to abandon their car at a washed-out road, hike, rent horses, and spend the night in a tiny wooden building they shared with livestock.
Hollingsworth admits she took preconceived notions into Karahola the next day. "I went there with the idea of digging wells, but I realized they don't need wells dug," she says. "They've got the water, it just needs to be purified."
Asking the Espinoza family to take the lead in connecting with the Karahola community, Hollingsworth spent two weeks visiting the area at large. Upon returning home, she was hospitalized briefly at Sarasota Memorial for diarrhea dehydration, courtesy of a bug no one could identify.
Bottom line - with help from her AquaAid board, which also includes Pincus and Sarasota/Fort Lauderdale yacht captain Bill Foster - Hollingsworth decided portable filtration systems were the way to go, so long as the approach also included techniques for teaching safe hygiene to children.
As for attaining nonprofit status, she was advised to sponsor more than one related project before attempting to clear that hurdle.
Chelon Rieniets, Hollingsworth's mother, is confident her daughter will keep on top of her studies at NYU, and suspects AquaAid International will be the more enduring facet of her education.
"Sophie's always been extremely scientific and very thorough in everything she's done," says Rieniets, an interior designer and Ringling College grad. "I feel like she could've gotten a college degree based on what she's already done."
But Rieniets' faith in her daughter's ambitions doesn't mean she intends to join Sophie in January when AquaAid delivers its first measure of assistance to Karahola.
"I've taken my kids to some pretty remote spots over the years, but this place is extremely remote," she says. "Eight hours on horseback? I don't know, I'm not 20 anymore."
For Jim Stoll, who co-founded Lifeworks International a decade ago and counted nearly 100 students on sailing/education adventures from China to Peru this summer, Hollingsworth's story is "kind of unusual."
"This has always been an eye-opening experience for kids because they get a remarkable opportunity to walk the planet and see how other people live, and how they struggle," Stoll says. "But you rarely see where those ripple effects lead. Sophie is as good an indicator of success as anybody we've had. She's a really interesting character."
If all goes as planned, assuming she can rustle up sufficient glitter, crayons and frequent flier miles come January, Sophie Hollingsworth hopes to start other like-minded projects in the region. But the journey, not the destination, may be the larger story here.
Says AquaAid International's young founder, "I absolutely love what I do."
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