Molly Greene, whose international humanitarian group provided clean drinking water to millions in third-world countries, died on Wednesday during a trip to the Bahamas with her family. She was 72.
Greene co-founded the nonprofit organization Water Mission with her husband, George, in 2001. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning, according to a statement by the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina. Additional circumstances surrounding Greene's death have not been made public.
"No words can describe this heartbreaking loss for our family," Molly's son, George C. Greene IV, president of Water Mission, said in a statement. "We mourn the loss to our family. We know that a larger global family mourns with us and celebrates her life, as she blessed so many around the world. We ask for your prayers and request privacy at this time."
Greene, of Charleston, was most known for her significant contributions in working to provide disaster-stricken or impoverished areas access to drinking water, made possible by the filtration systems she and her husband designed.
The idea for the group was born from the devastation the couple witnessed in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch, a Category 5 storm, wreaked havoc on Central America, Honduras in particular.
While in Honduras, it was a village river that inspired the couple to action, according to their mission statement.
"The river that flowed through a nearby village was the color of chocolate milk, deep brown with toxins, bacteria and hopelessness," the statement reads. "As one of the newly built water systems became operational, the local villagers were still terrified to drink any water from the river – whether it was clear or not. So Molly and George placed their own lips to the hose and drank the newly purified water."
The Greenes, who for years operated GEL, a Charleston-based environmental lab, started the nonprofit with a goal of providing clean water to 100 million people within a decade.
"Having experienced Hurricane Hugo nine years prior, we understood the urgent need for relief," Molly Greene wrote in a Thanksgiving column in The Post and Courier. "George felt called to reach out, and sent an email to Leo Frade, the Bishop of Honduras, asking what we could do to help. To our surprise, he received a response the very next day with a specific request, 'We need six water treatment systems.'"
At the time, she and her husband did not have experience in designing or building such systems, and research revealed that existing systems were too expensive or too inefficient for use in disaster response, Greene wrote.
"Determined not to give up, George pulled out the textbooks and within two hours had sketched out a design for a water treatment system," she wrote. "Within two days, the team at GEL had built and successfully tested a prototype with the help of Charleston Water System."
After further work and consulting with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the six water treatment systems were built and shipped.
John Cook, former CEO of Charleston Water System, was involved in the Greenes' efforts since the beginning when he helped complete those first six treatment systems.
Cook went on to serve on Water Mission's first board of directors before stepping down in 2006 when he left the Charleston area and moved to Greenville.
The initial investment to get the nonprofit off the ground came from the Greenes selling their business, he said.
"They started with no staff, no money," Cook said. "If you look at what they have today ... they had enormous faith and enormous vision."
Molly Greene was eternally optimistic, a trait that never failed to inspire others, he said, adding that he has no doubt that her legacy will continue.
"When you talked with her about this mission, she had an unbridled enthusiasm for what we were doing," Cook said. "It was hard to be around them and not be inspired. That's one of the traits of great leadership."
The Rev. Jeffrey Miller, rector at St. Philip's Church where Molly and her husband were members, said he was struck by how the Greenes dedicated their lives to helping some of the most vulnerable people around the world and by how much their humanitarian work mirrors the words of Jesus Christ.
"They reached out to the least of these and they made a difference, and it’s a difference that transcends Charleston and transcends the world," Miller said. "It flows from their faith and it was genuine."
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the name of St. Philip's Church.