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17-year-old McChord daughter helps others find water

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When you ask Mariah Smiley what she does for fun, her pause is a little long for a 17-year-old girl.

It's not that she's boring. During the school year she goes to Woodinville High School where she'll be a senior next year. She takes college classes a few evenings a week, loves soccer, and is very involved in her church. But the thing she enjoys the most, and that takes up the most of her time, is Drops of Love, the nonprofit she's been running for the last three years.

"I could never get stressed out from it," Mariah said. "I love it."

It's a passion that her mother, Lt. Col. Kelli Smiley, 446th Force Support Squadron commander, could see from the moment her daughter was introduced to the global water crisis. One evening in 2009, she and her husband returned to their San Antonio, Texas, home from a benefit for Living Water International, a nonprofit group that focuses on providing community-based water solutions in developing countries, and told their son and daughter what they had learned - that $1 had the potential to provide a person in a developing country water for an entire year.

"I could just see the wheels in her head turning," Kelli said of sharing this information with her then 14-year-old daughter. "‘Where do I waste a dollar?'"

It was something Mariah had never thought about before. Like many people, she assumed that everyone had water and always would.

In reality, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, leaving an estimated 1.4 billion people living in river basins where the use of water exceeds minimum recharge levels, according to UN-Water. The organization estimates that by 2025 1,800 million people will be living with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world's population could be under stress conditions.

Not only is access to a resource essential to drinking, cooking, bathing and growing crops rapidly shrinking, many countries are also experiencing a sanitation crisis. The World Health Organization estimated that in 2000, 1.1 billion people were without improved water sources and 2.4 billion did not have access to improved sanitation. The result is 1.8 million deaths per year from diarrhoeal diseases, 1.2 million deaths from malaria, and increased risk of contracting other infections or consuming impurities.

Mariah didn't know any of this back then. But she did know she wanted to do something to help others, and that it needed to be more than a few hours of service here and there.

She wanted to see the impact of her actions.

After talking to her mother, she had a plan. She coded a website for Drops of Love that night, and began raising money in affiliation with Living Water International. In November of 2011, she went to El Salvador with a group from Living Water to help build the first well Drops of Love had funded. That was just the beginning.

In March of this year the organization became its own 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, complete with board members (including her mother) and regular meetings. The organization has raised close to $25,000 to date, and will have built four wells in El Salvador by 2014. In addition to holding fundraisers and education events in the states, Mariah hopes to expand her efforts by building wells in Haiti and Kenya next.

"It's like a fire," she said of her passion to provide the world with clean water. "I can't describe it."

According to Kelli, Mariah was always that way. She always suspected that her daughter would do great things for others, but even she admits she assumed it would come after her daughter had taken her SATs.

"It just took on a life a little younger," she said, full of pride in her daughter's big dreams.

Mariah hasn't decided on a college yet, but she knows that one day she'd like to go to law school and eventually work on Drops of Love full time.

She sees the water crisis as being intrinsically tied to world poverty, lack of education and countless other problems she hopes to help solve one day.

"I believe genuinely with all my heart that it begins with water," she said.

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