When the Christian band Jars of Clay took the stage in Cowles Auditorium in fall 2003, hundreds of students were thrilled to see a performance by one of their favorite groups. One student, however, was filled with the anticipation of an opportunity with this band that went way beyond their music and even beyond national borders. Jena (Lee) Nardella, at all of 21 years old, met with members of the band and told them that she had a vision for their nonprofit, Blood:Water Mission. Over Thanksgiving Break, she wrote a 25-page proposal on how this organization could have a dramatic, lasting effect by bringing clean blood and clean water to Africa. When she walked across the commencement stage that spring to receive her bachelor’s degree in political studies, she had a job as Blood:Water Mission’s executive director.
She drove from Washington to Tennessee to begin work. She recalls, on her blog, “We were underfunded and underqualified, but we unabashedly sustained our commitment to our friends in Africa – even when people told us to quit, when the economy tanked, when injustices trumped our efforts, when foundations said ‘no,’ when droughts stunted the communities’ progress – slowly by slowly we have stayed the course.”
In the years since the organization’s inception, as Nardella has continued on as CEO, Blood:Water Mission has raised more than $15 million to serve 800,000 Africans with access to safe water and has established three HIV clinics in marginalized regions of east Africa to serve the most overlooked populations. In 2010, B:WM celebrated the completion of its 1,000 Wells initiative, begun in 2005, which provides 1,000 communities with water and sanitation for just as many communities in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nardella continues to strive toward her calling and is recognized as a leader of faith. In 2012, she offered a closing benediction at the Democratic National Convention. Earlier that spring she delivered the commencement address for Whitworth’s Class of 2012. “On the other side of your degrees waits a world aching for transformation,” she said, “and you have been given the tools to be agents of that slow, yet desperately needed change. Whether you know it or not, this place has instilled in you common threads – genuine concern for others, growth of character, and a recognition that God really does invite you to participate in seeking the Kingdom.”