One year after 9-year-old Rachel Beckwith's death from a car crash inspired people around the world to donate more than $1 million to a charity in her honor, her mom is in Ethiopia this week visiting the water wells her philanthropy paid for.
Rachel had hoped to raise $300 to bring clean water to an African village when she asked her friends and family to give money to the group "charity: water," instead of buying her presents. She was close to that goal in July 2011 when she was killed in a 13-car pileup on Interstate 90 near her Bellevue, Wash., home. Support for her cause surged and nearly 32,000 people donated $1.27 million by the time the charity closed her campaign in October.
Many of those gifts from strangers were for $9 each - a dollar for each year of her short life.
Her mom, Samantha Paul, said Tuesday her trip to the Tigray region of Ethiopia one year after her daughter died hasn't been as hard as she thought it would be. Seeing the need for water in this area and the people that Rachel's fundraising campaign have helped Paul focus on Rachel's gift, instead of her death, she said in a telephone interview.
"It made me realize how blessed I am even though I don't have Rachel with me anymore," Paul said.
After arriving Sunday, Paul, her parents, her pastor and some leaders from charity: water visited two villages that still don't have clean water, so people must collect it from ponds and carry it home.
Next, the group stopped to see a well in progress and help with the drilling.
On Monday, they went to some villages that already have wells from Rachel's campaign and were greeted with a parade, welcome parties, signs, poems, speeches and an invitation to plant a tree in a new community park named for Rachel.
Paul has been impressed by how far the Ethiopian people have gone to make her feel welcome and to show their appreciation for Rachel.
"I feel inadequate. What did I do? They were so grateful and humble - just amazing people," she said.
Paul doesn't take credit for Rachel's generosity, saying her child inspired her, not the other way around. Rachel had a strong feeling of empathy for others, naturally reaching out to other kids who were struggling at school or with problems at home.
In kindergarten, she donated her hair to a charity that makes wigs for kids who lost their hair because of cancer treatments. Twice in her short life, she gave up Christmas presents so her family could adopt others in need, her mom said.
After their church, Eastlake Community Church in Bothell, Wash., raised more than $400,000 for charity: water, Rachel expressed her desire to raise money for the charity and help kids in Africa.
Rachel's fundraising campaign quickly became the largest in the history of the effort, which depends mostly on individuals to invite their friends and families to give money to celebrate a birthday, wedding or other event.
The charity estimates each $20 donation is enough to provide one person with clean drinking water for decades and $5,000 is enough for a village. The New York-based charity has raised more than $60 million in the past six years and supported more than 6,600 projects in 20 countries. The money is spent mostly to dig wells, improve water systems or catch rainwater, and the projects usually serve entire communities.
Rachel's family plans to continue its philanthropic efforts, with a new campaign in honor of Rachel's younger sister, Sienna, who is celebrating her third birthday. And Paul is making plans to start her own nonprofit, Rachel's Wishing Well, to encourage more people to give back.
"There's something about Rachel and her story that has touched people and inspired them," Paul said. "She was such a special girl."