Close to 780 million people do not have access to clean water and a child perishes every 21 seconds because of water-related diseases.
Josue Lajeunesse can relate to the staggering numbers having lived the experience growing up in La Source, a small rural village in southern Haiti.
Village residents relied on natural spring water from a nearby mountain as the only source of clean water. Accessing the water was however quite challenging as the local people had to walk almost a mile through rough terrain to get to the source. The return trip carrying several heavy containers of water was even more hazardous.
“As a young boy I asked myself why I had to go all the way up there just to get clean water for cooking and bathing,” Lajeunesse told Share recently. “It didn’t seem right.”
The only other option was the La Gosseline River which villagers use to wash and bathe themselves, cattle and vehicles. A reservoir for bacteria, the contaminated water poses a serious health risk.
While in high school, Lajeunesse vowed to lead a charge to make clean water accessible to his village and neighbouring communities. He developed a plan to cap the natural spring at the top of the mountain and pipe water down to a series of cisterns through the village. Several years later while serving with the Haitian Army as a palace guard, he presented his plan to the government in order to get some financial help.
A series of coup d’états in the 1980s sent the country into a tailspin and forced Lajeunesse to flee to the United States in 1989 and put the water project on hold.
With no family members to lean on, he lived with a friend in the Princeton area and struggled for almost five years doing menial jobs before securing permanent residency and obtaining full-time employment as a janitor at Princeton University.
To support his five children who joined him in the United States and family members back in Haiti, Lajeunesse also operates a taxi until the early morning hours after leaving the university campus around 3:30 p.m.
Despite his heavy workload, the single father still found time to assist university students with human resources learning and development programs.
Never losing sight of his passion, the Haitian immigrant started sending money and supplies in 2003 to his older brother, Chrismedonne, to put aside for the water project.
“I had made up my mind that my brother and I were going to get this done,” he said. “I went to the library during the little spare time I had to do research to figure out how we could get purified water to the village.”
An honorary member of the Princeton Class of 1998, Lajeunesse’s humanitarian work caught the attention of the university which recommended him to be featured in a documentary, The Philosopher Kings, that tells the stories of eight janitors at American universities.
When producer Greg Bennick and Patrick Shen grasped the scope of Lajeunesse intense drive and commitment to provide the people of La Source with clean water, they were compelled to capture his absorbing narrative.
Narrated by Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle, La Source, a 70-minute documentary provides an uplifting story of the janitor and taxi driver who returns to his birth country after the devastating 2010 earthquake to revive his lifelong dream of bringing clean water to the community he was raised in.
With assistance from Princeton students, Operation Blessing – a humanitarian organization dedicated to relieving human suffering – and Generosity Water which is committed to ending the clean water crisis in developing countries, Lajeunesse rallied support and resources to achieve his lasting goal four years ago.
“If I die today, I will have no regrets because I know the people in my village have access to clean water,” he said.
In 2011, Princeton honoured the lead janitor with a Martin Luther King Jr. Award that recognizes efforts to continue the journey to achieve King’s vision.
Lajeunesse came to Toronto for the first time late last month to share his inspiring story with high school students as part of Black History Month celebrations. This was his second trip to Canada. Last year, he attended the ninth annual Montreal International Black Film Festival (MIBBF) where the documentary was screened and he was presented with the first MIBFF Social Impact Award.
Miguel San Vicente and his wife Itah Sadu, the owners of the book store, A Different Booklist, organized the visit.