An October book from Kids Can Press presents the heartwarming account of two boys on two different continents who came to know each other through rather extraordinary circumstances.
Herb Shoveller's Ryan and Jimmy: And the Well in Africa That Brought Them Together begins in 2000, as Ryan Hreljac and his parents travel from their Ontario home to a remote village in Uganda, where the boy is guest of honor at the ceremonial opening of a well for which he had spearheaded fundraising efforts. Here Ryan for the first time comes face-to-face with Jimmy, a local orphan who, through the pen-pal program that Ryan's teacher established with Jimmy's school, has been Ryan's pen pal for more than a year. The two bond instantly. Outlined by Shoveller, who is Ryan's great-uncle, the events leading up to this encounter—and those that follow—make an intriguing story.
In 1998, when first-grader Ryan learned about the lack of safe drinking water in many parts of the world, he began saving the money he earned performing chores in hopes of financing a well that will supply a village with clean water. Discovering that the sum he accumulates will only buy a hand pump for a well, he galvanized his community to raise additional funds to finance the much-needed well for Jimmy's village.
Back in Canada after the opening of that well, Ryan continued his fundraising efforts and addresses groups all over the world. With his parents, he established the Ryan's Well Foundation, which as of 2005 had built 194 wells in Africa and South America, providing more than 350,000 people with clean drinking water.
The personal side of the story also has a happy ending. In 2002, Jimmy escaped from rebel soldiers in civil-war torn Uganda who had wanted to draft him into their army. Hearing of the boy's plight, Ryan's parents arranged to have him visit Canada and eventually adopted him.
Coincidental circumstances helped this tale find its way into print. Valerie Hussey, former publisher of Kids Can, recalled that several years ago someone directed her attention to a Reader's Digest article about Ryan and Jimmy. "We thought their story would make a terrific children's book," she said, "so we contacted the Hreljacs."
About that same time, someone suggested to the family that Kids Can's strong nonfiction list—and the fact that it is a Toronto-based house—made it an ideal home for a book about the boys. Also auspicious was the fact that the Hreljacs had a professional journalist in the family who was willing to write the book.
"At first, we were concerned about the telling of this story," Hussey noted, "since we knew it was important to carefully respect the fact that these boys are children and there are some powerful issues imbedded in their story. We were thrilled to discover that this perfectly suited great-uncle was waiting in the wings. He is very close to Ryan's family and obviously knew a lot about their background so it worked out perfectly and made the project go that much more smoothly."
Kids Can publisher Karen Boersma describes Ryan and Jimmy—now 15 and 17 respectively—as "very smart and poised with ready smiles, but at the same time they are entirely down-to-earth. They are real kids and connect very easily to other kids." The pair attended BookExpo Canada this past June and has made publicity appearances in Toronto. Ryan and Jimmy were in New York City last week to promote the book, and will visit schools in Toronto in November.
Underscoring the fact that theirs is, in Boersma's words, "a living, breathing story," she shares a heartening update to the Canadian-Ugandan connection revealed in Ryan and Jimmy. In August, Ryan and his father, after a Ryan's Well Foundation fundraising trip to Australia, visited Jimmy's Ugandan village for the first time since the well opened in 2000. There, a boy gave them a letter to pass on to Jimmy, with whom he had been friends. This boy had also been captured by the resistance army and Jimmy had heard that he had been killed. The two now correspond and Jimmy sends part of the money he earns working part-time at a gas station to his friend in Uganda. Perhaps there is another happy ending in the making.