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Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
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White House: Hughes a ‘Champion’
Being honored in ceremony
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Gary Ellis (left) of Moneta and Walter Hughes Jr. of Union Hall meet with the chief in Wungu, Ghana, to talk about bringing clean water to the village.

Friday, April 5, 2013

By CHARLES BOOTHE - Staff Writer

Walter K. Hughes Jr. of Union Hall will be honored at the White House today.

Hughes, a member of the Rocky Mount Rotary Club, is one of 12 Rotary International members from around the country selected as a "Champion of Change."

"I am honored and humbled to receive this honor,"

Hughes said. "It is proof that God can use us to change the world if we are willing to serve."

The award was created as an opportunity for the White House to feature groups of Americans -- individuals, businesses and organizations -- who are doing "extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities." 

Hughes is the leader of a Rotary partnership that has virtually eradicated guinea worm disease in Ghana through clean water projects. 

The team, which consists of members of more than 80 Rotary Clubs from Canada, the United States, Switzerland, South Africa and Ghana, has raised more than $1 million to provide clean water in remote Ghanaian communities with the highest incidence of the disease.

These efforts helped eliminate the disease in Ghana in 2011.

Hughes made many trips to Ghana to help drill wells, as well as build churches and deliver much needed medical supplies.

Following that success, Hughes traveled to South Sudan in October 2012 to continue efforts to eradicate the guinea worm disease and raise awareness about a lesser-known tropical disease, Buruli ulcer. 

"I'm accepting (this award) on behalf of Rotarians and friends from a team of over 80 Rotary clubs in the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, Ghana and South Sudan," he said. "We are celebrating the end of guinea worm disease in Ghana in West Africa! It all started with a dream. I'm the lucky guy who gets to witness lives transformed around the world."

Hughes was notified last month that he was invited to the White House as a nominee for the award.

"Today we welcome 12 amazing Rotarians to the White House. Each of these men and women have spent countless hours helping communities both here in the U.S. and abroad," said Paulette Aniskoff, deputy assistant to the President and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.  

"Collectively, these Rotary Club members have touched the lives of thousands of people--whether by improving health and providing health services, preventing hunger, supporting our poor communities,  empowering unemployed, addicted, or homeless adults, or caring for students. The Rotarians we honor today truly exemplify the Rotary Club motto: 'Service above Self' and in doing so show that the American spirit is a generous one,"  

To watch this event live, visit www.whitehouse.gov/live at 1 p.m. today.

Hughes said the idea for the water project was planted almost 10 years ago when Sherrie Lynch, a fellow member the Redwood United Methodist Church, asked, "How do you dig a well in Africa?"

Thinking that it was a problem for someone else to solve, Hughes said he had been on church mission trips in Ghana, but concentrated in other areas.

It wasn't until about 2006 that the possibility of actually bringing safe water to cities in Ghana took root.

While he was speaking at another Methodist church in Stuart about his trip to Africa, a church member there, Bruce Griffith who is also a fellow Rotarian, was moved by what he heard.

"Bruce thought that there were Rotary clubs with an interest in helping with clean water in Africa," Hughes said. "He suggested that I write a Rotary matching grant so that all of the Rotary clubs in southwestern Virginia could make a difference. That conversation planted a seed that took over two years to come up."

But bringing water to an African nation working from Rocky Mount is quite a task, and Hughes said he wasn't sure it was even feasible until a mission's board meeting in Richmond. That's when he learned about a water purifier that turns salt into chlorine.

Working with two area Rotary governors, Griffith and Dr. Ken Tuck in Roanoke, they started contacting clubs throughout the area to get pledges. Those pledges, from 14 clubs in Southwest Virginia as well as clubs in San Francisco and Buffalo and Hughes' church, eventually brought in matching grants to make the project economically feasible.

Another member of the Roanoke Rotary Club , Dr. Wink Weaver, helped establish a sister Rotary club in Tamale, the capital city of Ghana, Hughes said. Weaver goes to Ghana every year to donate his time in a small village clinic there and during his trip last year he visited the Rotary club there to start discussions about working together.

Hughes said a Rotary grant for such a project requires a sister club from another country.

At that time, Rotary also organized an exchange with an eye doctor from Tamale, he said. Dr. Seth Wanye came here to learn about American eye care clinics. He also spoke to Rotary clubs about his work in Ghana and about blindness caused because people don't have clean water to wash their hands and faces.

Hughes said Wanye was the first person from Tamale that he got to know.

But even with that contact, a major obstacle had to be crossed, Hughes said, and it had to do with ethnic differences.

Tamale is a city dominated by Muslims and has been considered an unsafe place to visit, he said.

In fact, Hughes said that on previous mission trips he and his fellow travelers spent very little time there, "only long enough to buy gas, repair a flat tire or make a phone call."

And the initial talks with members of the Tamale Rotary Club did not go well, he said.

"The Africans were afraid that Virginia had typical 'ugly Americans' who would not listen to their needs and problems," he said. "It took a lot of emails and phone calls to get them to open up and start trusting us."

A trip back to Ghana after these exchanges by Hughes finally was the breakthrough needed.

Hughes said he and traveling companion Gary Ellis, a Moneta businessman, met with the Tamale Rotarians and told them that the U.S. Rotary clubs would raise the money, but the decision of where the clean water work would be done would be left up to them.

"We agreed that the primary decision was to find places where the parasites and blindness was very bad as the reason to choose a certain city or town," Hughes said, explaining that health problems related to impure water included blindness and infestations by parasites.

"It was a good meeting because we were willing to find solutions that would work best in the West African bush," he said. "They were very interested in a demonstration of the water purification system. They quickly sent someone to notify the chief (of one of the villages) that we would demonstrate the water purification system the next day at a local reservoir."

"The chief was excited about the potential for safe, clean water. He said that he wanted clean water for his family and town. The chief was a Muslim, and he was very thankful that we were there."

Hughes said they also learned the Rotary club there was as active as the one here.

"The people at the Rotary meeting were very similar to the business people in Rocky Mount," he said. "They were talking about things that would have been very normal to discuss in Rocky Mount."

Hughes said he spent a lot of time meeting with representatives from the Jimmy Carter Center, Ghana Health Services, Guinea Worm Eradication Program, and other organizations.

"We were taken to see the impact of guinea worm parasites in a city named Savelugu," he said. "We also went to the Tamale eye clinic where Dr. Wanye is the only eye doctor for northern Ghana. We were overwhelmed at the small amount of medicine and equipment used at the eye clinic and the amount of work that could be done in one eye clinic."

Once the grant money was approved by the Rotary Foundation and additional funds obtained through World Vision and the Hilton Foundation, the project was ready to take off, Hughes said.

Since that time, Hughes has returned to Ghana many times to see first-hand the work being done.

He also has been busy raising more money for the project

Hughes worked for Mobil Oil for 10 years before working for America Online where he was the Director of Strategic Technologies.

Now, he is a very active independent missionary and evangelist in Africa.

Hughes said his call to action came after reading Luke 12:48b: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." Hughes is working to build the seventh church in the Mamprusi tribal area of northern Ghana.

He also was the pastor to New Hope United Methodist Church in Callaway for three years until 2012.

He is the Rotary District 7570 Grants Chair and Past-President from the Rotary Club of Rocky Mount.

Hughes was recognized by District 7570 for the District Rotary Foundation Service Award in 2008. He also received the Rotary Club of Tamale Citation for "Service above Self" to the people of Northern Ghana in 2009. He received Rotary's Vocational Service Award in 2012.

Hughes and his wife, Susan, have four children, Melissa, Carolyn, Jessica, and Johnny.

Hughes has a degree in marketing from Virginia Tech. Melissa is earning her master's degree in Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Tech. Carolyn is a biochemistry major at Virginia Tech. Jessica is starting her career at Emory & Henry College. Johnny is a sophomore at Franklin County High School.

 

 
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