By James Addis, Senior Editor
Few people can talk or network like shoeshine man Leon McLaughlin, and he’s always got something interesting to say. So when I got copied in on a group e-mail from him a few days ago—which to be honest I couldn’t quite follow because I was clearly joining the conversation late—I thought I’d better give him a call to find out what was going on.
But to recap: I first wrote about Leon in the Spring 2009 magazine. The extraordinary thing about him was that he had managed to use his shoeshine stand, located in a big tower complex in downtown Seattle, as a rather unlikely base to bring clean water to people who desperately need it in the developing world. As Leon shines the shoes of some of Seattle’s top movers and shakers, he shares his passion for the need for clean water and enlists their support.
Water is a subject Leon knows something about. He has traveled extensively, taken online courses in water management, and founded the non-profit Clean Water Foundation. Leon came to the attention of World Vision when he funded water-filtration equipment and provided technical support for flood-devastated communities in Bolivia.
Well, let me tell you how Leon’s been “connecting the dots” to make things happen since then. First, he struck a deal with the Moka Joe coffee company to create a blend called “Coffee for Clean Water.” Part of the proceeds are funding more filtration units in other water-scarce communities.
He also enlisted the support of engineer Dr. Phillip Thompson, an associate professor at Seattle University, to assist with the installations. The last one occurred in Potosi, in a remote village in Bolivia. This involved setting up a web video conference featuring Leon at the shoeshine stand; a translator in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz; First Water, the Georgia-based makers of the filtration equipment; and World Vision staff in Potosi who were talked through the installation. Leon’s especially happy about the project because he got to visit Potosi before the installation took place. He says negotiating the steep mountain passes to get there “scared him to death,” but that was nothing compared to meeting children suffering malnutrition and diarrhea because of the filthy water they were compelled to drink.
The next installation should take place later this month at Yanama, also in Peru. Currently, World Vision workers in Peru are procuring parts for the system, and Leon anticipates that, if necessary, Dr. Phil will talk them through the assembly and install via another web conference. Come to think of it, this could make a good yarn for the next magazine. To make the planned inauguration ceremony especially sweet, Leon managed to procure about 5,400 bars of soap from the Clean the World Foundation [www.cleantheworld.org] to bolster a World Vision hygiene program in the village.
Indeed, Leon would make any journalist turn bright green with the extent of his contacts. The foundation has just completed a fundraising music CD featuring many artists Leon got to know while working at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre in a former life. “Music for the World” features tracks from Expresión Latina, Nik West, Eric Verlinde, and Paula Boggs—a singer who also happens to be executive vice-president of Starbucks. The CD will be available soon on Amazon. Meanwhile, you could try contacting Leon for a copy at the foundation website.
Next year, the Clean Water Foundation is putting on a concert at Seattle’s Key Arena to celebrate World Water Day, on March 22. Leon says they are currently negotiating with several major artists to perform.
So if you happen to be in downtown Seattle and your shoes could do with a bit of a shine, pop into the Columbia Center and get the inside word on Leon’s latest water projects and promotional plans. He cannot contain his enthusiasm, and it’s a joy to hear him talk. Your shoes will end up looking pretty good, too.