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Jim Evans: Love for people enables love for nonprofit work

Years in film and advertising give way to Christian calling to bring clean water to African communities. by April Wallace | April 3, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.
Jim Evans, regional director of donor relations for Lifewater International in his office Friday March 25, 2022, an organization that builds wells and provides hygiene education and other community support services in Africa. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)

Every business and organization could use a compelling storyteller, and for Lifewater International in Bentonville, that spokesman is Jim Evans.

He's technically the regional director of donor relations, but his job at the clean water nonprofit Christian organization is to relay the great needs of children and families in eastern Africa and Asia to those who can help make a difference in their lives with a donation.

Lifewater uses those funds to provide communities with clean water through the building of wells, hygiene education and instilling improved practices. The organization employs locals and creates well committees that help ensure both the well equipment and new behaviors are maintained over several years before the support backs away.

"In extreme poverty, health in general is very complex," Evans says. "Lifewater is not just out to build a well and walk away ... it invests in a vision of a healthy village.

"What I love is its very holistic approach and sustainable emphasis."

Lifewater International is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year and has 177 employees, 30 of which are in the U.S. The remainder are in eight regions across Uganda, Tanzania, Cambodia and Ethiopia, where the on-the-ground work is done. Evans joined the team when its headquarters moved to Bentonville in October 2020.

"He has such a strong passion for that mission and vision of Lifewater and in presenting what happens when you invest in it," says David LeVan, CEO of Lifewater. "Jim does a great job at connecting people through ideas and thoughts. You can tell he speaks from the heart. I'm moved by his passion when he speaks."

Evans' wife says that Lifewater is exactly where Jim belongs, as a former salesman with a heart for missions and giving back, and she has watched him blossom professionally.

"While most people in the corporate world desire to continue to climb the career (ladder), Jim takes a different approach to work and works to live, instead of living to work," Sarah Evans says, noting that their faith impacts all their decisions. She appreciates that Jim is motivated to make a meaningful contribution rather than worrying about any typical, societal expectations surrounding work and career. "He's always had a desire to make something more out of his career than just money."

Patrick Sbarra, founder of New Creature, where Evans worked before his move to the nonprofit sector, says he saw and liked that quality in Jim.

Even then, "he was very mission-oriented and purposeful," Sbarra says. "He was pursuing doing his craft well, which is different from pursuing the dollar. He took the craft seriously and the job seriously, but not himself seriously."

Sarah Evans says Jim's unique role is not always seen as an important part of the process in nonprofit work, but it enables the action.

"They can't send people or build rigs or dig wells without the cash flow, so development officers play an important role," she says.

Many folks immediately mention Evans' servant heart, which has a tendency to want to help meet needs, as well as his personality that connects with people quickly and deeply.

"With his humble but extroverted personality, he builds relationships quickly," says David Roth, CEO of Workmatters, where Evans worked previously. "Jim's authenticity is a powerful quality in his nonprofit development work. Jim quickly understood our faith and work integration, so his donor-focused mindset was a huge asset."

During the past couple of years, due to the covid pandemic, Evans' development work shifted primarily to virtual one-on-one meetings, but LeVan says he continued to connect well with others. Now that events are shifting back to in-person, Evans will have the opportunity to return to those face-to-face chats he loves so much.

"He paints an amazing picture of Lifewater" at Rotary Clubs and all manner of gatherings, Sarah Evans says. "For someone who knows nothing about it, he gives a very good idea of what Lifewater stands for and what they do."


Jim Evans joined Lifewater International because the work is close to his personal values, and it helps people in a fundamental way. Without clean water, it's difficult for families to do much aside from live moment to moment.

One in every nine people worldwide do not have basic access to safe drinking water and one in three don't use even a simple latrine to manage human waste, according to Lifewater material. Every two minutes, a baby dies due to a waterborne disease, its website says.

Lifewater tries to preempt these issues by working at the local government level, coordinating with schools and churches to make sure each home and school has a cinder block latrine and a wash station to go with it. They're also integral in teaching wash curriculum to children through wash clubs or emulating it through lifestyle.

They also make use of drying racks to get dishes up off the ground, away from surfaces that have contact with feces, pets or other animals.

"It's three years on the part of the village and Lifewater to begin with hygiene education," Evans says. "First that includes stopping open defecation, the primary disease transmission that spreads things like typhoid and cholera."

Often before Lifewater arrives to help a village, mothers have to walk long distances to fetch drinking water that ultimately makes their children sick. Schools without latrines mean that children have to go to open fields or woods to relieve themselves, which makes them vulnerable to sexual predators.

Among the elements of school partnership is menstruation education, making schools a safer, more dignified place for girls. It's a tremendously effective component of the system's overall success, Evans says.

But once clean water and healthy hygiene practices are in place, school attendance soars and often businesses spring up, made by the parents who never had the time before.

"In the first year of (the well) being built, girls staying in school increases by over 18%," he says. "For a school with a population of 125 students, that grows it to more than 600."

Changing behaviors first is critical, Evans says, because the wells can break or become polluted by poor hygiene behavior -- and roughly half of all wells do eventually break.

When it's clear that hygiene measures are in place, Lifewater works on creating the safe water supply by providing labor and materials for the well and involving locals in the process. They help form well committees made of local residents, always with a breakdown of roughly half the members being men and the other half women, who raise funds to maintain and repair the well if it breaks. Lifewater trains people in these communities to be the well technicians so that they can disassemble it, know which parts to look for and where to find replacements -- everything needed to maintain its use long term.

At the end of the process they are a certified healthy village, but Lifewater provides five years of continued interaction to determine whether any behaviors are lagging or old habits are creeping back in.

What Evans clearly loves about the whole process is the ripple effect of clean water on the whole community.

"Now, when the child is healthy enough to stay in school, and mom doesn't have to walk 90 minutes to fetch polluted water ... two or three trips a day, it's amazing to see what happens," Evans says. Among the most impactful things he's heard from Lifewater recipients was from a 55-year-old Ugandan woman with four children, who "for the first time in her life, she (said) she could think about tomorrow and not worry about the water or health today. She could actually plan for tomorrow."


Jim Evans grew up in the church, and faith had always been a big part of his life. In fact, when he went off to study communications at Oklahoma Baptist University, it was with the intention to follow the experience with seminary. During those years, he met and married his first wife and by graduation, Evans says, they were getting a divorce. The experience left him bitter and turned him away from the church at the time.

Rather than continue on to seminary, he returned to his love of theater and film. He earned a Master of Fine Arts in film production from Oklahoma City University while working at Pollard Theatre in Guthrie, Okla.

"We've argued about who was the better actor," says Jerry Boyd, Evans' longest enduring friend. The two grew up together in Oklahoma City. "Though it's pretty impressive that he can still quote the courtroom scene from our high school performance of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' when he starred as Atticus Finch."

After gaining his education, Evans moved to Miami and would travel up and down the East Coast for work as an actor, sound technician and carpenter -- always landing in New York for audition season. In those years, he took whatever work would pay the bills. Often that was doing dinner theater, but slowly that started to include film work.

Evans' first film production experience was as a permanent extra on "Twister," where he was a precision driver and for five seconds of the movie, he is the father holding his family as the storm chasers enter Wakita just after the big storm levels the town.

"My family freezes that frame every time," Boyd says.

After that, Evans did a lot of production-related things when he was offered a job in Los Angeles, working as a stunt person, a photo double but also handling marketing for a team of the precision drivers to get their skills noticed by other production companies.

For a while Evans had his own business, offering his services as a personal assistant, most notably to Martha Williamson, TV producer of "Touched by An Angel," with whom he worked for a few years. During his "Touched by An Angel" years, he met Rose Stone of the band Sly & The Family Stone, who helped turn Evans back toward the church.

"She taught me the power of praise," Evans says. "How gratitude can break down bitterness and hurt and feelings of injustice."

Around that time he got a call from his ex-wife, who asked for forgiveness, and the combination of events gave him some closure on that decade of his life that was completely taken up by the pursuit of career moves and not much else.


On Christmas Eve 1999, Evans flew to Claremore, Okla., to visit his parents for the holidays and went to a church service with them. When a beautiful woman walked in with her parents and sat in the pew ahead of them, Jim leaned over and asked his mom who she was. They were briefly introduced, but Evans still lived in Los Angeles and Sarah Gordon lived in Fayetteville.

Luckily, buddy Jerry Boyd was getting married just a few weeks later and when he asked Jim to be a groomsman, he agreed to fly back on one condition: Sarah Gordon must be there too. Evans ushered her and her family to their seats, and after the wedding, they stayed up until the early morning hours talking.

Another month later, they had a date while Sarah was in Phoenix on business, over St. Patrick's Day, and afterward Evans called his mom.

"I told her, if I don't marry her, I'll never get married," he says.

In August, Sarah met him in Los Angeles to see how she might like it if she moved out there to be with him. Evans rented a red convertible Mustang for the occasion, to give her the full Hollywood effect, and then chartered an aerial tour of LA. The helicopter flew them up the coast as he pointed out Huntington Beach, Santa Monica, studios and some of the areas where he worked as well as the route she could take to work each day.

The helicopter hovered in front of the Hollywood sign as Jim proposed and Sarah said yes. They were married in Santa Barbara before the end of the year.

A couple of years later, when Sarah was pregnant with their little girl, the two began discussing moving to Northwest Arkansas. They wanted their daughter to be able to get to know her grandparents.

Evans made a trip to the area to see what it was like and found himself shocked as he passed a little league field. He was used to the sponsor signs on the fence reading "Joe's Tires" or "Sarah's Cleaners," not Exxon Mobile, Walmart and Tyson. Excited by the industry possibilities, Evans felt more confident that he could find work he liked here.

He quickly found a home at New Creature, a company that served Walmart with marketing and display products. Sbarra, the company founder, says he can't remember how he met Evans, only that he liked him and his fresh perspective right away.

"He didn't have any experience in that space, so he came in with fresh eyes, looked at things from a creative standpoint," Sbarra says. "Jim has a gift. He earns trust easily, it's just in his persona; he's earnest, natural, he was authentic. We believed the person that he was in front of us was who he was.

"That's probably because he's an earnest Christian. Dynamic, charismatic and yet at the same time humble."

Sbarra says Evans' strength at New Creature was being a big thinker, and they rewarded him with growing responsibility and autonomy. Evans loved that job and was suited to it, but like a lot of people, he lost his job in the 2008 economic recession.

So when someone who knew Evans had a background in film production asked him to go to Uganda to help with a documentary about an orphanage there, Jim said yes. It turned out to be a life-changing experience. Once he returned home, he had a heart for the nonprofit sector.

"I didn't want to return to the corporate world, making money to get to the next thing," he says. "That was not attractive anymore. Even advancement within a company had lost its sparkle. I wanted my life to make a difference."

Afterward, Evans went through a development training program at John Brown University while working as their regional development director. He learned a lot about the intricacies of giving and felt fortunate to get to know a lot of families very personally as they made JBU a part of their planned bequests.

In the years since, Evans worked for Champions for Kids, an organization that provides basic necessities so children can thrive in school, and then was vice president of development for WorkMatters. He loved their mission too and only left because Lifewater's goals were so close to his heart, he says.

Evans never imagined bouncing around a bit job-wise here, as he had in LA, but credits the great leaders he's worked for and met for encouraging him in his life and his path in a community that he says has an extreme amount of ability and influence.

"For the first time, I can see how if I were to dream big, Northwest Arkansas could absolutely transform the rural communities of Ethiopia," Evans says. "That's fun to dream about."

  photo  Jim Evans, regional director of donor relations for Lifewater International in his office Friday March 25, 2022, an organization that builds wells and provides hygiene education and other community support services in Africa. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)
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