charity: water stories

Losing Her Dream, Finding Her Purpose

A conversation with hydraulic engineer and professional soccer player, Vanessa Kara

by Mercy Weaver

On September 7th, 2022, we’ll celebrate our 16th birthday as an organization. (Yep, we’ve officially hit our rebellious, teenage phase. Watch out, world.)

We’ve served 15,477,279 people in our 15 years, and all thanks to the generosity of more than a million donors around the world.

Whether it’s a classroom of enthusiastic 8 year olds, a celebrity, a parent, or a business, each supporter is uniquely incredible. They choose action over apathy. They engage one of the world’s most pressing injustices with compassion.

These world-changers hail from over 100 countries around the world, but one thing unites them: a shared desire to see an end to the global water crisis.

We wish we could sit down with each of you and hear your stories—we have so much to learn from your example. We don’t always have the opportunity.

But when we do, it’s always truly special.

Vanessa Kara may only be 26, but her experiences have wrought a humble maturity beyond her years. By her senior year of college, she had damaged her ACL three times—an injury that typically takes nine to twelve months to heal, even with surgery. She’d seen doors into the world of professional sports open and close: at times, in quick succession.

Yet, when you speak with Vanessa, she’s decidedly joyful. Her sense of hope for the future is evident—and it’s the kind that requires intentional cultivation. Perhaps, because she’s already overcome so many obstacles.

It’s this shared story that initially drew Vanessa to charity: water. A friend gifted her Thirst as a 25th birthday gift, and she resonated deeply with Scott’s longing for meaning after the path he thought he wanted left him spiritually and physically exhausted. His shift into a life of service to others reflected her own journey, and she started fundraising for charity: water shortly after.

Although she only discovered charity: water in 2021, our mission felt familiar. Vanessa has been passionate about ending the water crisis since she started studying hydraulic engineering in college. (Which was, in itself, a childhood dream come true.)

An interest in engineering took root as early as middle school. Her dad was an engineer, and she remembers feeling like he somehow knew everything about the world. He would take her on canoeing trips and explain which parts of the river were the fastest and why. Under his guidance, the world seemed simpler and more wonderful.

“He’s my favorite human,” Vanessa said. “But both of my parents are really great.”

His early example, combined with her aptitude for math, primed Vanessa to pursue an engineering degree in college. But her classmates didn’t always share her enthusiasm.

“You know, you’re always sweaty in the back of class coming from practice. My classmates always dismissed me as not being smart.”

It wasn’t until Vanessa passed the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam—on the first try, and several weeks ahead of her classmates—that she earned their respect. But Vanessa doesn’t seem to mind.

“I was just so focused on what I knew I could do, and where I could see myself. I didn’t let it get to me. Or maybe I didn’t even notice, because I was so focused on that image that I had for myself in the future,” Vanessa explained.

Looking over her story, this buoyant determination is a recurring theme.

“I was never the best player on the team,” Vanessa admitted. “At each level I was at, my coach would tell me, ‘You’re not technical enough for the next level.’ There was always this, ‘Where you are right now is not good enough.’”

“And I always just thought, ‘Okay, that’s fine, but you don’t know where I’m going to be in a year.’

“I had this vision. I could see myself doing it. So, I just held onto it. I worked hard and built this foundation of, ‘I can see it, so it can happen, and I don’t care.’”

Vanessa allowed others’ doubt to fuel a guiding belief in her own ability. It’s carried her far. She’s played for Drexel University and the University of Florida—achieving leading scores for both teams. She joined the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) playing for the club team Racing Louisville, and now as a forward for the Dominican Republic’s national team.

But when asked how she understands purpose, Vanessa’s answer isn’t rooted in her careers in soccer or hydraulic engineering.

“My purpose has always been helping people. And the things that I’m good at are my gifts to fulfill that purpose. I’ve achieved more than I ever could’ve dreamed of, but that’s not my priority.”

Instead, Vanessa uses her gifts to fulfill her true purpose: ending the water crisis and serving others.

She’s using her abilities to make the world better, not to make her life easier. But for Vanessa, this was not a natural shift.

When she was in high school, Vanessa suffered two ACL tears—one in each knee. Reflecting back upon that time, she believes the experience transformed her positively.

“When you’re in high school, you confuse the difference between fitting in and belonging. When soccer was stripped away, I didn’t like the person I was left with. And it took all of it ending for me to become the person I wanted to become.”

Prior to her injury, Vanessa was being recruited by Top 25 soccer programs across the country. When she was recovering, the phone calls stopped. Suddenly, scouts thought she was too injury-prone to compete at the collegiate level.

“It took feeling like I’d lost my life’s dream to fracture my ego. And I’m so glad I experienced that at 16 and not 30 or 40.”

“It takes who you think you want to be being broken open to grow into the best version of yourself, stop worrying what other people think, and become whole.”

Now, Vanessa isn’t chasing achievement or applause. She just wants to be present, try her best, and enjoy whatever life brings.

When I asked her what she thinks it means to change the world, she had valuable advice for anyone who wants to live with purpose, but feels overwhelmed or stifled by their circumstances.

#1: Start simply.

“Start with the things that really matter to you. You start with the problems that make you stand still, anything that stops you in your tracks and really makes you feel. That’s how I feel about access to clean water, but everyone has their fight. Whatever your thing is, that’s your gift to the world.”

#2: Adventure beyond what’s comfortable.

“Do things that make you a little uncomfortable. When I first started fundraising for charity: water, I didn’t know what I was doing or where it would lead. I just decided to start.

“When I knew I wanted to play soccer professionally, it was a huge leap. I didn’t know what it was going to look like. I had no idea what was next. I just knew I had to do it, like a gut feeling. I feel like the best things in my life have come from just taking a step and seeing how things go. “

#3: Choose presence over perfection.

“In sport and high performance, it’s all about achievement. I went down this path for a while where I thought, ‘What can I achieve? What can I achieve?’

“Now, I’m just so excited about what can happen in a day. If you’re intentional about how you spend your day, you can change and grow more than if you planned it out a year in advance. The growth is exponential.

“Even if your day is hard, there’s a purpose behind it. You’re learning now to give more to the world later.”

#4: Sometimes, you have to lose your dreams to find yourself.

“My dream was to play in the NWSL. It was such a long road to get there. And then, in the end, that’s not even what life was all about. I hope people don’t have to make the same mistakes I’ve made to get to a place where they feel content and purposeful.”

#5: Celebrate the small wins— it’s the antidote to cynicism.

“Sometimes, I’ll get into a hole where I’ll do all this research and think, ‘Climate change and the water crisis? It’s just too much.’

“Freaking out, thinking about the magnitude, or dwelling on the people you can’t help just doesn’t work. Celebrate the wins. Focus on the things you can do. I believe that people are good and there are more good things happening in the world than bad. When you focus on the good, these big problems seem more manageable.

“When I was recovering from my third ACL injury in college, the whole goal was small wins. I couldn’t put any weight on my leg for two months, so I lost all of my muscle. I couldn’t walk for a while. I couldn’t even pedal once on a stationary bike. And when I started recovering, every small win felt so good. And so even though it was my hardest recovery, it felt the most enjoyable because I was celebrating the small wins the whole day. And then I learned that I can apply small wins to every part of my life.”

So… what now?

What are we supposed to learn from Vanessa’s example of a life lived for others? Hint: it’s not that we all should’ve been born athletes or engineers.

(I personally sat alone and relegated to the bench for many a middle school basketball/volleyball/gymnastics/track and field competition. And I once got kicked out of a “Girls in STEM” engineering camp because I accidentally burned a hole into a table with a soldering iron. No joke.)

Not everyone can be a professional soccer player or work in the water sector—and not everyone should. No one person’s experiences are more valuable or impactful than another’s. Our unique gifts, passions, and experiences are what equip us to serve others right where we are. Maybe you’re an excellent organizer or a born leader. Maybe you can make anyone feel heard or at home.

Wherever you find yourself in this moment, you are exactly where you’re meant to be.

Vanessa’s story reminds us of the power of a single “yes”—when repeated day in, and day out.

“Yes” to choosing compassion, even when it’s costly or uncomfortable.

“Yes” to believing that people are good and kind, even when the opposite is sometimes true.

“Yes” to a guiding sense of gratitude, even when circumstances are hard.

We face a million messages each day—from the news, from social media, from our friends, or even our fears—about the world we’ve inherited.

But at charity: water, we still believe the best is yet to come.

We know it’s true because we’ve seen the evidence. It’s in the generosity of people like Vanessa—and you—who are willing to say “yes” to a brighter future each and every day.

As long as we strive forward together—and aren’t afraid of hard work— anyone, anywhere, can transform the world for the better.

And everyone deserves the opportunity.

Every month, The Spring—a passionate community of 69,000 world-changers— donates to bring clean water, sanitation, and hygiene to rural communities. Their dedicated support allows us to make long-term investments in the countries we serve, making them some of our most impactful donors. Join today and help transform the lives of moms, dads, and kids around the world.

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