REALTOR® Elias Thomas calls it the “forgotten place.” But a discovery of sorts is happening amid the shantytowns along India’s northern border, where some of the nation’s poorest residents endure 120-degree summers without electricity or clean water. Thanks to Thomas’s pioneering volunteer efforts, the people of these villages are forging a new way of life, with access to fresh water not only for drinking but also for making a living by growing and selling crops.
It’s the crowning achievement for Thomas, broker-owner of EXIT Key Real Estate in Shapleigh, Maine, who has spent 40 years fundraising and volunteering both at home and abroad with Rotary International, one of the world’s largest charities. He began with his local chapter, helping to build meditation gardens for the mentally ill and offering job hunting and housing assistance to newly released prison inmates. Prior to his major project in India, he traveled to Cozumel, Mexico, in the late 1990s to help stop the island’s garbage dump from polluting the water system.
An Eye-Opening Journey
In 2001, Thomas traveled to India with Rotary International as part of a team with a mission to immunize children against polio, a crippling disease that had reached a crisis level in the country. Though living conditions were deplorable—Thomas remembers children playing marbles in puddles of urine and raw sewage streaming down the sides of buildings—what struck him most was the gratitude residents showed him. It convinced him that India was where his work was most needed.
“There was a woman in a burqa carrying a 10-day-old child in her arms,” Thomas recalls. “She looked at me without looking at me, as if to say, ‘Do I trust you?’ She passed the child to me, and I dropped two drops of the polio vaccine on her tongue. The child began to cry, so I sang a lullaby to calm her down. The mother bowed to me as though she were saying, ‘Thank you for saving my child’s life.’”
Since then, Thomas has returned to India annually, organizing teams of eight to 80 volunteers and personally immunizing about 500 children. He also raised $40,000—just a slice of the more than $350,000 he’s raised for Rotary International over his volunteer career—to help pay for the corrective surgeries of some 1,000 polio victims. (Rotary’s goal is to eradicate polio worldwide, and it did so in India in 2011.)
Roger Schulte, a Rotarian from Upland, Calif., who traveled to India with Thomas in 2008, remembers how Thomas’s commitment inspired the team. “Elias has deep faith that we can bring about change,” Schulte says. “He’s a man that has dreams, and while most people talk about what they wish they could do to help others, he does it. To Elias, everyone in humanity is critically important.”
Seizing an Opportunity to Change Lives
Another dire situation came to Thomas’s attention in 2008. His friend, Sanjiv Saran, an Indian native and fellow Rotarian who has volunteered with Thomas since 2002, told him of the desperate desert communities in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. Clean water is so scarce there that residents were forced to wash dishes and clothing in wells, polluting their own drinking water and causing several infants to die from dysentery. “I immediately thought of Elias to help these people because I can be dead sure he will see any project through,” Saran says. “I’ve seen clear, tangible results from every project we’ve worked on together.”
“When the villagers see me and the other volunteers, they give us hugs and take us into their homes for tea. We really became part of their communities. I love that my inner circle has stretched across oceans.”—Elias Thomas
Thomas assembled an initial team of 78 volunteers from eight countries and coordinated with village councils to devise a solution. Together, they created a plan to build dams that would capture the runoff from monsoons, providing a basin for drinking water and to irrigate crops. But with no machinery available, the dams would have to be built by hand. Every year for the last 10 years, Thomas has led volunteers—a total of 350 from all over the world—through the grueling process of digging the holes, lining them with membranes to hold the water, and building out the dams with materials trucked in from remote locations.
In all, they’ve built nine dams serving more than 45,000 residents, each one spanning about half a football field. Locals completed the construction work after Thomas and his volunteers returned home, with each dam taking anywhere from six months to a year to build.
The impact is dramatic: After completing the first dam in 2010, “everything was green where it used to be brown and dusty,” Thomas says. “The hills were lush, and waterfowl had moved in and made it their home.” Now that water is easily accessible, children have more time to attend school rather than fetch clean water from distant locations, parents can do chores without fear of making their kids sick, and crops are more plentiful, giving the communities a way to sell goods and improve their quality of life.
The Face of Selfless Giving
Thomas also makes a major impact on Rotary International stateside. “Elias is the poster boy for Rotary,” says Danielle Treadwell, past president of Thomas’s local Rotary club in Maine. She says he has attracted many new volunteers and has even fundraised to cover travel expenses for some. Volunteers pay their own way to India, which costs $5,000 per person. “If someone said they wanted to go, he would do anything to get them there,” Treadwell adds.
India has become such a large part of Thomas’s life that he has even taken his family there to meet people he has befriended and celebrate local weddings. “My 9-year-old grandson said he was sad to see so many poor people,” Thomas says. “I said, ‘But what do you know?’ He said, ‘I know that you and your friends are making life better for them.’ That’s the answer. That’s why I do this.”