People—connecting with them, helping them, and bringing solace where there was pain or suffering—are what life is really all about. This was the message of yesterday’s keynote by Doc Hendley  at the American Massage Therapy Association’s (AMTA) Annual National Convention. It’s a message understood by massage professionals,  Doc said.

Doc is the founder of Wine to Water, a nonprofit that helps people in developing countries set up or repair water drills, establish water-filter factories, and other activities that contribute to a clean water supply.

An inspiring keynote presentation is, for me, always a highlight of attending any massage conference, and Doc’s keynote at the AMTA convention in Fort Worth, Texas, in which he recounted his journey—from the life of a near-dropout to the founder of an organization working to ensure people in the developing world have clean drinking water—was both uplifting and daunting to me.

Uplifting, because he shared with the audience the transformation of his belief about himself—that he would never measure up, especially compared with the high achievers in his family, and that he was “a nobody with nothing to offer the world”—into the realization that any individual with passion who is living for something larger than him- or herself can contribute to changing life for the better. Daunting, because of the encounters with violence he and his team are faced with as they do good work.

A former bartender and musician who was content pouring drinks and playing occasional gigs, he awoke one morning in his North Carolina home to the phrase “wine to water … wine to water…” repeating in his mind, so clearly that he felt someone was speaking to him. He got up from bed and Googled phrases related to water, and realized that of the 7 billion people on Earth, 1 billion have access only to dirty water that makes the residents of their towns and villages—especially children and babies—sickened, to the point of death.

“What filled that screen changed my life,” he said.

Doc decided to have a fundraiser in a local bar, and then another, and another—and Wine to Water was born. He originally planned to have just wine-related fundraisers, with proceeds benefiting water efforts.

It became much bigger than that.

In the nine years since that first fundraiser, Doc has traveled to countries including  Darfur, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Haiti and Uganda, where he has connected with, helped and brought solace to the thirsty.

“Wine to Water has helped 250,000 people in 16 countries get access to clean water,” he said.

He emphasized he is not doing charity work; instead, Doc’s focus is on finding out what people need, and helping them get the supplies and training required to take care of their own water needs, now and into the future.

“Sure enough, the first time I saw that, I saw the empowerment it gave a community to be able to fix their own problems,” he said, recalling how he helped a village source local materials and labor, and repair their own water well.

His work is not without challenges. He was about to help install a water well in a refugee camp in Darfur, for example, when the camp was bombed and then janjaweed, government-supported forces, rode in on horses and camels to kill any survivors. Doc has been threatened, road-blocked, shot at. A member of his crew was executed.

Still, Doc’s work continues—bolstered in part by his belief that “someone is looking out” for him, and his Christian beliefs.  “Wine To Water’s goal is to allow Jesus to turn His miracle around for the needy people of this world, reads a statement on Wine to Water’s website. “It is our prayer that Jesus Christ will use those of us who have plenty to help provide someone who is less fortunate with the gift of clean water.”

In spite of religious and cultural differences, challenges, threats and acts of violence, what it all comes back to for Doc the basic connection he has with people.

“The people is why I love what I do,” he said. “I think in a strange way, we’ve been able to help and give people something like clean water, but in the end they have given me infinitely more than I could give them, and taught me more about life than I could teach them.”

And like, him, he said, massage therapists have figured this out as well, that life is about people. When he meets people who are in pain and suffering, he said, he can give them clean water and a smile.

“That’s kind of like massage,” he added, “Massage therapists can take pain and suffering and turn it into a smile.”

To get involve with Wine to Water by donating or hosting an event, visit