How One Teenager Transformed a Village... And Her Future

This is the story of two children. A story of giving and receiving. A story that is not yet complete.

Seventeen-year-old Kara has grown up in the comforts of suburban Long Island. She is bright and curious, determined and generous. And busy.

A continent away, 8-year-old Mijael and his family live in Tarija, Bolivia, a city large by Bolivian standards, known for its laid-back approach to life. For many people, three-hour afternoon siestas are the order of the day, a practice that belies the vulnerability of Mijael's community.

Kara and Mijael are a study in contrasts, and yet, as different as these two children are and as divergent as the lives they lead, Kara and Mijael are alike in one respect: Each one has dramatically - and perhaps unexpectedly - changed the life of the other.

Eight years ago, when Kara Patrovic turned 9, she took the first tentative steps down a path that, while not entirely unique, was certainly unusual for a girl of her age. While her friends busied themselves with the distractions typical of preteen girls, Kara became the sponsor of a newborn Bolivian boy, Mijael. Her monthly support through ChildFund International helped provide for Mijael's care and upbringing, while her regular letters - first to his parents and later to Mijael directly - fostered a relationship that would grow over time, so much so that Kara was determined to meet Mijael face to face.

She set off on an ambitious fundraising campaign, not only to raise the money for the 4,000-mile trip, but also to assemble a container of toys, clothing and other supplies to give to Mijael, his family and community. For over a year, Kara held a series of fundraisers - 11 in all - with the goal of raising $5,000. She set up a Facebook page and created email and mailing lists to broaden her reach. By the end of her campaign, she had raised more than $6,000, enough money to visit Mijael and to provide toys and supplies to an additional 55 children.

Kara's trip to Bolivia in 2012 was not the end of her journey but actually the start of a new one. In addition to spending time with Mijael and his family and volunteering at a local community center, Kara visited one of the poor neighborhoods in the area, where about 700 people live. She saw the challenging conditions of life in the barrio and met with village elders. They saw in Kara someone whose generosity and resolve could help them solve their most urgent issue - lack of clean water. "Agua es vida" ("water is life"), one elder told her.

The elders were right about Kara. She was determined to help, and if she could raise money for her initial trip, then she was undaunted at the prospect of raising money to help support the building of a water system for the village. When Kara returned to Long Island, she launched the Kara2Mijael Agua es Vida Project.

As part of her research, Kara schooled herself on global issues related to water. She learned that one-third of the global population does not have plumbing, which means no showers or toilets. She discovered that one out of nine people lack access to any clean water. And she learned that children die every minute of every day from water-borne illness. These statistics - coupled with what she saw firsthand at the barrio - fanned her determination for seeing that the barrio would get its water system.

Over the months to come, Kara's life became singularly dedicated to Agua es Vida. She built a website and engaged civic and school organizations. She enlisted volunteers and solicited businesses. And there were fundraisers - plenty of them: pancake breakfasts and car washes, yard sales and booths at community events. And what money she made refereeing soccer games, mowing lawns and babysitting also supported the cause.

With generous funding raised, Kara made a leadership gift to help fund the water system in Mijael's community. She and her family recently visited and were warmly welcomed for her tremendous initiative and compassion.

Kara's mission has helped to transform Mijael's life and provide his community with new opportunities. But Mijael and his village also have helped to transform Kara's life. Through this project and what she has learned about the global water crisis, Kara found her life's work. She plans to dedicate her college studies and her career to helping address water issues around the world.

Propelling Kara's resolve was her tremendous capacity for giving. Giving of your time and money, providing pro bono services and expertise, sharing what is yours with others is for many, many people the foundation for happiness. At ChildFund, we see these sponsor-child relationships contribute as much to the lives of the donors as to the children.

As we commemorate World Water Day on March 22, it's worth noting that the elders of Barrio 27 de Mayo were right - "water is life." But finding meaning in it often starts with the kind of giving that has flowed so generously from Kara Patrovic.