Nearly one billion people -- one of every eight on the planet -- don’t have access to clean water. 4,000 babies die every day from drinking contaminated water. These shocking statistics were brought to light at the 4th annual Thirst Gala, honoring individuals who’ve joined the Thirst Project’s efforts to end this global water crisis. Raising $200,000 through donations and live and silent auctions toward building wells, the benefit honored “NCIS” star Pauley Perrette with the Pioneering Spirit Award.

Receiving it means “Everything” to her, Perrette told MNN before the ceremony. “I love the Thirst Project and to be honored like this is amazing,” she said, explaining how receiving a video made by villagers in Swaziland thanking her for their new well made her feel fantastic. Later, in her acceptance speech, she talked about meeting Thirst Project founder Seth Maxwell through her church, mobilizing her fans to get involved via Twitter, and sponsoring her second well in Colombia. She said she never washes her car because she considers it a waste of water, and had her finger tattooed with 12:21, reflecting the Bible passage, “Never be overwhelmed by evil. Overcome evil by doing good.” It’s a motto she lives by, grateful she can use her celebrity to make a difference. “We’re so blessed that we have the ability to help and give back.”

Then-college student Maxwell started Thirst Project five years ago as a grassroots effort that has blossomed into a worldwide action network that has built 788 wells in 11 countries, providing clean water to 200,000 people in Ethiopia, Uganda, Colombia and elsewhere. Students remain a major force in the nonprofit’s strategy, now an army 300,000 strong. “Young people are the single most powerful agents for change in the world,” said Maxwell, noting that student volunteers have raised $6 million so far. Two years ago, he announced a commitment to Swaziland, where 44% of the 1.4 million population has no clean water. It will take $50 million, but fundraisers like this one will help achieve that goal, he said.

Kirsten Vangsness of “Criminal Minds,” who sang a song about Thirst Project to the tune of “Call Me Maybe,” hosted the gala, which also honored teacher Paola Nilsen, student Chelsie Kent, and producer Robbie Brenner for their efforts.

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