You wouldn’t describe River Bennett as “your typical kid.” By appearance alone, the twenty-one-year- old is anything but. Long chestnut curls flow from his head, cascading around a strong face from which two tranquil eyes peak out. There’s no doubt that he attracts a lot of attention wherever he goes. Of course, appearance is one thing. It’s when River Bennett opens his mouth that he truly distinguishes himself. “While I think that each generation is met with their own obstacles, each has been able to rise above and meet those obstacles head on,” he says. “There are some immense problems that my generation will have to confront soon, but we’ve also been groomed to prepare for these and the optimism among the people I meet who are my age is what keeps me confident.”
After being awarded a full scholarship from the Nantucket Golf Club in 2009, River told of his plans of studying international development and music. And that’s exactly what he did. He majored in Political and Social Thought at the University of Virginia, recently finishing his degree with a thesis on the political rhetoric surrounding energy independence in the United States. On the musical front, he served as president of the Virginia Gentlemen, UVA’s oldest a cappella group that twice traveled to Washington D.C. to perform at The White House earlier this year. And although these accolades alone are quite impressive, River’s philanthropic pursuits outside of the classroom may end up defining his college years.
While a sophomore at Nantucket High School, River learned of an ingenious device that pumped clean water for communities in sub-Sahara Africa. The aptly named PlayPump is powered by children: as they push each other around a specially designed merry-go-round in their schoolyard, they pump clean drinking water from a well below. Intrigued, River led a fundraising campaign on Nantucket for PlayPumps, organizing swimathons and encouraging donations from landscaping companies and other high-water users. He raised enough money to purchase two PlayPump systems, about $14,000 a-piece, which were later installed in Lesotho, Africa. Fundraising for PlayPumps on Nantucket inspired River to continue his work in water philanthropy at UVA by joining Global Brigades, an international, student-led organization working in health and sustainable development in countries like Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Ghana. He twice traveled to Honduras as a member of the organization’s Water Brigades, and by his senior year, River was the Global Brigades representative for UVA.
During the summer of his junior year, he interned at Charity: Water in New York City, a nonprofit that raises money and awareness for other vetted water organizations around the globe.“Charity:Water is a grant-giver and grant-seeker,” River explains.“They do not have any actual boots on the ground. They are a fundraising platform.” From PlayPumps to Water Brigades to Charity:Water, River has been involved in all ends of the effort to bring clean drinking water to the nearly billion people who live without it. “My overriding lesson from water is that every human has a right to it and almost everyone agrees with this,” River says. “There is a lot of incredible work being done to secure this vision, and through the opportunities that I’ve had, it’s hard to feel pessimistic about the state of things when you see how much focus is going into fixing it.”
In the fall of 2011, River and a fellow student, Kodjo Messan, learned of a UVA doctorate student who was teaching computer literacy to female students at a small Islamic school in her home village of Kumbo, Cameroon. Set in the mountains, the remote village experienced daily electricity blackouts—the school struggling to keep the lights on, let alone the computers. Recognizing an opportunity for an alternative energy project, River and Kodjo applied for a $5,000 research grant from UVA to travel to Kumbo and set up a metering tower to gauge solar and wind energy that might power the school. “Being an Islamic high school that was relatively young, they were a little wary at first of having Americans come over,” River says. “When they realized what our interests were and how our interests aligned, it became a pretty interesting cultural experience.”
This summer, River will analyze the data collected from the meter tower and draw up a plan to invest in an alternative energy system for the school in Kumbo. “It was a great introduction into the actual ways that these systems work,” River says. “I’ve been getting very interested in alternative energy and its future, and it was inspiring to see it there in real life.”
In a day when America’s youth lives virtually through the one dimension of iPhones and computer screens, River Bennett is touching reality first hand. When asked what motivates him, he says, “It’s interesting for me and humbling to realize how much is out in the world, that’s why I like traveling and that’s why I keep trying to put myself out there: for a different perspective.” And his perspective continues to take shape as he plans to head off to France to teach English this fall. After that, one can only imagine where this River will run.