Iowa City Catholic runs for clean water

Mike Stein wears a tank top promoting the Sister Water Project while running in the Quad Cities Marathon Sept. 22.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Longtime runner Mike Stein understands the importance of proper hydration. “I can’t imagine a human being not having access to water.”  It is a fundamental right, he believes.

The 56-year-old wore a shirt bearing the message “I Run for Water” during the Quad Cities Marathon last month, hoping to bring attention to the fact that many communities worldwide — and in the U.S. — do not have access to clean drinking water.

Stein set two goals for himself: finish the race, and raise $16,000 for well projects overseas through the Sister Water Project. Perhaps he was crazy for attempting it, but he had “high hopes and a plan.”


A commitment to clean water

Two billion people worldwide lack access to safely managed drinking water at home, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO) Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. Family members — usually women or girls — must take time out of their day to collect water, making it difficult to attend school. “If they have to walk 2 miles and back to collect water, that may take half their day,” Stein said. If the water is unsanitary, they might also have to collect wood to boil the water.

The Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque founded the Sister Water Project in 2006 to bring safe water to villages in Tanzania and Honduras. Stein’s late aunt, Sister Annette George, was a member of the congregation. “My family has a strong affinity for these women and their community,” said Stein, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville.

The Iowa City-based pharmacist raised about $4,000 for the Sister Water Project when he ran the Quad Cities Marathon two years ago — almost enough to build a well. Stein chipped in the remaining funds and named the well in honor of the George family. “(They) have been so extremely generous. So have many of my friends.”

Stein knows that water systems can be life changing, especially for girls and young women. He appreciates that 100% of donations go toward materials, transport and labor. He recently learned of a young Tanzanian woman who returned to school after the Sister Water Project built a well in her community. “She’s studying pharmacy; I am a pharmacist. It hit home to me a little more.”

The race to raise funds

Stein said he feels closest to his faith while in service to others. He prefers to volunteer and contribute funds quietly, but he knew he needed to stand out to raise more money in 2023, especially after taking a year off from the marathon due to injury. “Over the past several years, I’ve been trying to challenge myself and grow by putting myself in uncomfortable positions, this being one of them. I am not much of one to call attention to myself. I don’t tend to be on social media much. I don’t feel comfortable asking for money.” 

He created the “I Run for Water” slogan and designed T-shirts to wear during training. He posted training photos and videos on social media with information about the Sister Water Project. The response was tremendous and he met his $16,000 fundraising goal — with $700 to spare.

He finished the road race, but not without difficulty. He exacerbated a hip injury midway through the race, which makes him think his marathon days might be behind him.

Even if running is no longer part of Stein’s journey, he plans to continue supporting the Sister Water Project. He will travel to Tanzania in January with a group of Sister Water Project representatives to monitor previously installed wells. He is brainstorming ways to continue fundraising. “My hope is that whatever I come up with, we can raise more than $16,000 next year. I have some preliminary thoughts in my mind, but it’s too early to tell.”

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