Becoming 'A Woman for Others'

SLU Alum Hannah Vestal on Advocacy and How We’re All Connected

Leaning into the uncomfortable. It’s a phrase Hannah Vestal (A&S ’16), uses often. Not only that — it’s a skill she’s been honing for several years.

 

Saint Louis University alumnae Hannah Vestal

Hannah Vestal (A&S ’16), founder of Billikens for Clean Water, with the jerry can -- filled with up to 40 pounds of water -- that she carried to class, coffee shops, concerts and everywhere else she went.

In 2014, conversations with a friend involved in clean water advocacy introduced Vestal to the realities of the global water crisis, including the fact that millions of people have to walk miles a day, carrying heavy containers, to access drinking water.

“I had no idea!” Vestal recalled thinking. “And if I didn’t know, I figured others didn’t know, either.”

Determined to change that, Vestal began carrying a jerry can filled with up to 40 pounds of water everywhere she went. It gave her an opening to talk about the global water crisis with people around her, often complete strangers. It was, at times, uncomfortable.

“When I first started carrying the can, I was really self-conscious about all the stares,” Vestal said.

But she persisted. “I couldn’t let my embarrassment become more important than the millions of people I was walking in solidarity with,” Vestal said. “I realized, as an advocate, I’m called to lead a life for something bigger than myself.”

In addition to raising awareness about the water crisis, within five months, Vestal had raised $7,500 to fund a clean water project in Haiti.

Billikens for Clean Water

Encouraged by the support of faculty and fellow students — and motivated by what she was learning about the water crisis in several of her classes — Vestal founded SLU student organization Billikens for Clean Water. In 2015, more than 70 SLU students got involved with the club’s efforts to raise awareness and funds — this time to provide water filters to communities in Belize.

Steven Howard, Ph.D., assistant professor of Health Management and Policy and director of SLU’s Executive Master of Health Administration program, heard about Vestal’s efforts and helped Billikens for Clean Water secure a $40,000 Rotary International grant through SLU’s Rotaract Club to fund a water processing plant for a community in Honduras.  

“We try to work with local partners to ensure we are providing what a community wants and needs,” Howard said, adding, “The Honduras plant will be self-sustaining because it produces more water than the community needs, so they are able to sell the surplus.”

Living Out SLU's Mission

Before coming to SLU, Vestal had never heard the Jesuit phrase “men and women for and with others.” But it has completely shaped the trajectory of her life and work.  

“At SLU, it’s normal, everyday conversation to talk about social justice issues and what’s going on in the world,” Vestal said. “Every day I was called out to listen and pushed to think outside of myself. So when I learned about the water crisis, I needed to look into that. I couldn’t just let it go.”

Howard credits SLU’s mission to serve a higher purpose and seek a greater good with attracting service-minded students and faculty of all faith traditions.

“There is something so special about SLU,” he said. Unlike some universities that deal with social justice issues in mainly academic, intellectual contexts, “SLU is among a select group of schools that consistently focus on finding tangible ways to get involved and impact the world around us.”

A New Kind of Solidarity

After graduating in 2016, Vestal signed up for a year of service with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest. Through that program, she is working at a Seattle residential facility for people who were impacted by chronic homelessness. Vestal describes the facility as one that uses the “housing first” approach, meaning it accepts residents many other shelters may turn away.  

Vestal cooks breakfast for the residents each morning and often spends the rest of the day talking with them. In the process, she’s developing close bonds with people from walks of life very different from her own and building relationships she said she would not have imagined possible a year ago.

Reflecting on the progression that’s led her to this point, Vestal said: “When I carried the jerry can, I was trying to be in solidarity with people who have to carry water every day. The work I’m doing now — and actually being with people every day — takes the idea of standing in solidarity with others to a whole new level.”

She added, “I’m learning so much about human relationships. We really are connected more than I ever knew.”

What’s Next for Billikens for Clean Water?

Now led by SLU sophomore Shalini Raichur, Billikens for Clean Water continues the clean water advocacy Vestal set in motion.

“I decided to keep this club going because clean water is a basic human right,” Raichur said. “Access to clean water is so important because not only does it open up time for women to have jobs and children to attend schools, but it keeps people healthy and safe.”

During the 2016-17 school year, Billikens for Clean Water is raising funds for a second Honduras Water Project and ongoing efforts in Flint, Michigan.

To find out more about Billikens for Clean Water and make a donation to help fund clean water projects, visit Billikens for Clean Water or email billiken4cleanwater@gmail.com.