HORRIFIC SCENES from a killer drought in the African valley where he was raised inspired Elijah Korich to become a champion for life.
Korich, 64, is the founder and quiet force of nature behind Keiyo Soy Ministries, a faith-based organization that pulls resources from congregations in and around the city in support of its guiding principle: To improve the quality of life in western Kenya, especially through clean water.
This morning, Korich will hold his Walk for Water, a 5K race on the Schuylkill River Trail, now in its sixth year, which serves as the annual linchpin in his fundraising efforts.
Since 2000, when Korich founded his ministry - named after the valley in Kenya where it operates - the group has constructed three water towers and laid 18 miles of pipeline to transport clean, treated water to people who would otherwise struggle to find it.
"It stuns me to see how much we've done in 15 years," Korich said. "I can only say, 'Thank you, Lord.' "
His road to Damascus
During a trip to his native country in 1999, Korich received what he says was a divine wakeup call. The excursion was meant to be a celebration, one last hurrah for his whole family to commemorate the completion of his doctorate in counseling before he began meeting with clients.
He wanted to show his children his homeland, the hills that shaped him until the early 1980s, when he took off for the United States to pursue his higher education.
Instead, they found "a great trauma."
"There was an extreme drought, just dead corpses of animals everywhere," Korich said. "People were terrified, and you could smell the death in the air."
In the Keiyo Valley, droughts are common, and water is scarce. What paltry amount is available is fetid, often tainted by animal waste or other impurities.
During their stay, Korich and his family "boiled and boiled" the water they drank. But it wasn't enough - his daughter Faye, then 8 years old, became ill and couldn't keep food down, couldn't sleep.
Korich and his family took the next plane back to Philly.
"The message was clear," he said. "I was running away, but I was leaving thousands who were literally on edge of starvation and death.
"The Lord used that message to say, 'You should be here with your own.' "
Calling all congregations
So, "as soon as the plane landed," Korich went to work. He filled out the necessary forms to register as a nonprofit, and even visited Harrisburg to ensure everything was in order. He cast a wide net of supporters in the Delaware Valley, drawing more than 20 congregations of a variety of faiths: Catholics, Protestants and even Mennonites.
One of the biggest supporters is the Germantown Christian Assembly, where Korich is the director of discipleship ministry.
In the early years, the donations from these supporters helped launch the ministry's water project.
"Water is the key to everything, and these people fight every day to find it," he said. "Children are not children because they are so busy trying to survive."
In the valley's tiny villages, kids often spend hours simply walking around, searching for water. Their quests, often fruitless, take full priority - it's hard to justify getting an education, Korich said, when classroom time occupies daylight better used looking for a precious resource.
"They are looking for water that will make them sick, and waste time doing it," he said. "Then, they waste time being sick from drinking the water - which isn't even fit to wash your hands in."
The pipelines and tanks built by Korich's ministry carry pure mountain water from its isolated source into the remote villages that so desperately crave it.
In recent years, Korich has also taken up more diverse interests, including donating clothes and supplies to schools in Kenya. Every summer, teams from local high schools - such as Abington and Springfield - and colleges - including Villanova and Delaware - venture to Kenya to help in the ministry's efforts.
And today, Korich expects a few hundred walkers to brave the snowy forecast and come to the Fairmount Water Works, on Waterworks Drive near Kelly Drive, where the Walk for Water is kicking off at 9 a.m.
The proceeds from the racers' registration will go directly to the ministry, as will the sales from the handmade Kenyan products sold inside, including handbags and jewelry.
And it's for the best cause of all - life.