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Thirst Project's Seth Maxwell taps the potential of youth

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Sitting at a sidewalk cafe, slowly demolishing a muffin, Seth Maxwell doesn't look like he's changing the world.

With his pale, symmetrical features and offsetting red beard, Maxwell, 24, could be just another musician or actor attending South by Southwest.

And, in fact, he trained as an actor, performing in the European touring company of "Fame" and in what he calls "a history of terrible commercials."

Yet, as he emerged from his teens, Maxwell took on a much bigger task: Building wells for the almost billion people in the world without access to clean water.

In less than four years, his Thirst Project has raised $2.6 million, enough to deliver safe, clean water for 100,000 people in 11 countries.

While in Austin for SXSW, the Los Angeles-based Maxwell gathered with supporters on a rooftop patio at Congress Avenue and Sixth Street.

Several of the more than 200 Thirst Project campus chapters are right here in Central Texas.

Many other groups, such as Austin's Glimmer of Hope Foundation, are digging and maintaining wells. Yet the Thirst Project, which has partnered with groups similar to Donna and Philip Berber's foundation in the past, does things a bit differently.

"There is no other water organization that is led by — and caters to — young people," Maxwell says. "There's tremendous untapped capacity in people our age."

While attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Maxwell had no premonitions of world service.

"I was arguably the most selfish, introspective person on the planet," he says.

Then a friend who traveled the world as a National Geographic photojournalist pulled out a laptop at a coffee shop. Picture after picture showed 4- and 5-year-olds drinking from muddy puddles or infested swamps.

Children she had gotten to know during three or four-month sojourns died of preventable dysentery.

"I left just shattered. My entire world was destroyed," he says. "I was drinking a $5 cup of coffee and thought, ‘What am I doing with my life?' "

So like any 19-year-old, he Googled the problem. And was overwhelmed by the information on extreme poverty.

A series of coincidences — seeing a movie about Rwandan genocide, hearing about the African water crisis at church, meeting a hydrologist — during the next 72 hours convinced Maxwell he must do something.

So he talked to friends. They put together $70 to purchase bottles of water, which they distributed on Hollywood Boulevard to raise awareness of world thirst.

They also brought along portable gas cans full of water and urged people to carry them a certain distance to demonstrate the challenges facing those far from water sources.

That afternoon, they raised $1,700 and gave it to a well-building group.

"We thought we were done," Maxwell says. Then two of the people they met asked them to speak at two schools. Maxwell's performance training must have paid off. They raised another $12,000.

Thus, the Thirst Project was born, first working with established water groups, then assembling their own civil engineers and hydrologists to select the right villages, where they study the conditions, hire local contractors and draw up "water constitutions" for fair use and maintenance.

Maxwell now speaks on campuses across the country, supported by a staff of three (administrative costs are covered by the group's super-charged board of directors so that all public donations go directly to the wells).

"The average American high school has 2,500 students," Maxwell says. "If half of them donate $5, we can build a well. If they donate $10, we can build two. We put it in terms they can understand: Skip the sports drink before practice. Instead, drink water from a fountain and donate the money you save to give the gift of clean water."

Sometimes during South by Southwest, it pays just to show up. Then to stay put. And listen to rumors.

The Austin Music Awards ceremony is loud, long and somewhat chaotic. Yet they honor Austin music and musicians in a genuine and heartfelt way. This year, the big rumor was inescapable: The Boss was in the building. So from 7:09 p.m. to 11:22 p.m., the Jersey rocker was the subject of every other conversation.

(For a fuller account, see Austin Music Source and Out & About blogs at austin360.com.)

With his friend Alejandro Escovedo as the ceremony's musical closer, the inevitability of Bruce Springsteen persuaded crowds — not all of them — to linger longer than usual. A fantastically fit Marcia Ball leaned over to say, "I don't think I've ever seen people stay this late."

Escovedo sure knows how to build suspense. The great Austin artist welcomed to the stage guest after guest, including Amy Cook, Dan Dyer, Joe Ely and Garland Jeffreys. How could he top that?

Bruuuuce! In a checkered shirt and jeans, the Jersey rocker backed up Ely with serious guitar work on "Midnight Train," then broke into Escovedo's "Always a Friend." The Austinite said that, upon first hearing Springsteen sing that song in Houston and joining in as backup, "Those three minutes changed my life."

Ely and Springsteen shared an extended version of Woody Guthrie's "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad." Jeffreys joined all of them for the Rolling Stones' everlasting "Beast of Burden." Powerful stuff.

SIMS leader Tricia Forbes, who first tipped me off about the "surprise guest," looked ecstatic. "You have no idea what this means to me," she said, hands across her heart.

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com