Do you know how much five gallons of water weigh? Almost 42 pounds. By itself, that doesn’t seem like a lot — the same way 200 yards, by itself, doesn’t seem like such a long distance. It’s just a couple of football fields.
But it’s all about context.
I’ve always been relatively small in frame. Even today, at 20 years old, I’m about 5’10’’ and 155 pounds. It can be an advantage when I’m out shredding a street course somewhere, but it hasn’t always worked in my favor.
When I was 13 years old living in Puerto Rico, I might have been around 100 pounds. So if you take those five gallons (42 pounds) of water and ask my 100-pound frame to haul them 200 yards uphill to our house multiple times a day — sometimes for as many as seven days in a row — so we could have clean water, it gets pretty gnarly. That 42 pounds (almost half my weight) gets a lot heavier, and those 200 yards starts to feel like miles. My back would ache so much, sometimes that I didn’t even want to go out and skate.
I’d look at my mom, ready to complain, but if I did, I’d always get the same response.
She’d tell me about the kids out there who had it worse than us. Those kids out there who were walking two miles, not 200 yards, to get water, and they weren’t getting it from a filtered holding tank like we were. They were getting water from a stream somewhere — filthy water that could make them sick — because that’s all the water they had. So I wasn’t allowed to complain because there were people out there who had it worse than us, and they had to live that way. They didn’t have a choice.
This is what confused me more than anything, because we did have a choice, and I couldn’t understand why we were choosing to live like that in the first place. All I wanted to do was skate, and San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico was a long way from the skateboarding life I’d left in California.
My parents always did things a little bit differently. My three brothers, my sister and I didn’t go to normal public schools — we were home-schooled. We didn’t play Little League or other team sports. We were a skateboarding family. I was raised a vegan until I was a teenager. I was too young to really remember it, but at one time, my family lived in Hawaii and Fiji because my parents wanted us to be exposed to different cultures and alternative lifestyles.
After Hawaii and Fiji, we moved to California, where I basically lived every kid’s dream. My family owned a skatepark near our home in Davis, so every day I would wake up, go to the skatepark and skate all day and into the evening. It was a pretty gnarly setup. I had it made. And because I was practicing so much and I was getting really good, I started to make a name for myself on the skateboarding scene in California. Things were moving pretty fast for me. I was only 11 years old and I already had a sponsor. I got invited to skate at the X-Games. I was taking off. Everything was perfect.
So when my dad got this idea to pack up the family and move to a rural farm in the hills of Puerto Rico, I was like, Wait … what? I thought it was crazy.
My dad got the idea when we traveled to Puerto Rico for a skateboarding contest. I don’t know if he wanted to go back to that alternative lifestyle or if he wanted to protect me and the family from the media attention and everything else that was going on, but the bottom line was this: I didn’t want to go. I loved my life in California. Like I said, it was a legit setup — a skateboarder’s dream.
But I was 11 years old, so I really didn’t have a choice. My mom tried to talk my dad out of it, but it didn’t work.
We sold the skatepark and moved to Puerto Rico.
Our house in Puerto Rico was on a 26-acre farm about 30 minutes up the hill outside the city of San Lorenzo. All in all, it was a really nice place. The island was beautiful. It just wasn’t the best place to grow up if you’re a skateboarder. There’s still stuff to skate out there, but it’s definitely not California.
We basically lived off the grid and in isolation. It was a tough adjustment after the lifestyle we lived in California, and for a lot of reasons, it was the most tumultuous time in my life and in my family’s life. Day-to-day life was much tougher, but it was also difficult for me to maintain and grow my skateboarding career. I was young, so I didn’t really know what was going on behind the scenes or why. I just knew that all I wanted to do was skate, and living in Puerto Rico was making that a lot harder.
That’s why carrying those five-gallon buckets of water up that hill still stays with me. It represents the extreme opposite of the life I’d left in California.
Let me explain: Like I said, we were basically living off the grid. So during periods of heavy rainfall — which was pretty often, it’s a tropical climate — the water would go out. Either a pipe would break or a storm would bring debris that would clog a water line, and when it did, my older brothers Jahmai and Ahbi and I would have to walk down to the holding tank to get clean water until the water line was repaired or until it rained enough for the water line to unclog itself.
Sometimes it lasted one day, sometimes a week. Either way, carrying those 42 pounds of water up the hill was backbreaking work for a little dude like me.
If I took clean water away from you, the first thing you’d think about is not having water to drink. And you’d be right. That’s important, for obvious reasons. But it doesn’t stop there. There are so many other things we use clean water for on a daily basis that we just don’t even think about. And you’d be surprised at how much water each person actually uses.
You need water to flush the toilet. You need clean water to shower. To do laundry. To do dishes. And in a house of seven people — me, my parents, my two older brothers and my younger brother and sister, Kiade and Isha — one five-gallon bucket didn’t go a long way. Seven people meant a lot of laundry and dishes. A lot of showers. A lot of water.
Which meant a lot of trips to the holding tank.
Going from one extreme to the other was eye-opening. Like I said, it was a tumultuous time, but in what were very formative years for me, it was also a learning experience. My mom, Kelle, made sure of that.
Every opportunity she got, she would remind us of how lucky we were. I still remember what she used to say when we’d complain. She’d talk about the kids all over the world who had it worse than us. She’d always say, “One day, we’re going to do something to help those people.”
I was still traveling to skateboarding tournaments and other events from Puerto Rico, but the isolation and the lifestyle change wasn’t working for my family, so my mom decided to take my brothers and sister back to California. My dad wasn’t happy about it. He wanted to stay in Puerto Rico. And since he was managing my skateboarding career, I stayed with him.
Being away from my mom and my brothers and sister was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. Living in Puerto Rico was already a really weird and confusing time for me, and now having to do it without them was even more difficult, especially since California was where I wanted to be, and I was the only one that didn’t get to be there.
In total, I spent about three years in Puerto Rico before my parents eventually divorced and I finally moved back to California. I was so stoked to be home in California with my mom and my brothers and sister again, but I was also stoked to get back to the life I’d left a few years earlier, the life where the only things that mattered were my family and my skateboard.
I picked up right where I left off, too. At 15 years old I won my first Street League event in Arizona. After that, the wins and the Top 3 finishes just kept coming, and I was having a lot of success — the kind of success I was headed for before we left California.
With every Top 3 finish and every new endorsement, my platform started getting bigger and bigger. And as it did, I remembered what my mom always used to say back in Puerto Rico, about those who had it worse than we did.
“One day, we’re going to do something to help those people.”
I thought about those five-gallon buckets, the 200-yard climb and the kids all over the world who are carrying more and walking farther and climbing higher than I’d ever had to. I thought about the nasty water they were pulling from polluted rivers and streams and the waterborne diseases that were killing them because they had no choice but to drink that gross water.
And suddenly I realized what my mom had told me all along — how lucky I really was. I get to be a pro skateboarder. I get to do what I love. And the way I see it is, you gotta spread the wealth. When you get to the point where you’re having success and you’re doing what you love, the natural next step in life should be to do whatever you can to help make other people’s lives better. Because of skateboarding, I get to travel all over and skate the sickest spots in the world. But most recently, I skated the rawest streets in the world and had some of the most amazing experiences of my life, and as weird as it sounds, I have Puerto Rico to thank for it.
As unlikely of a place as Puerto Rico was for my family to find itself at one point, the village of Debra Brehan in Ethiopia is probably an even more unlikely setting for the next part of my story. But in terms of impact, it might be the most important.
My mom and I always kind of had this dream to help bring clean water to the millions of people all over the world who don’t have access to it — those people she’d always reminded me about if I started to complain. So early in 2015, my mom and I teamed up with Tony Hawk and a couple of other skateboarders and sponsors and headed to Ethiopia.
Debra Brehan is home to about 900 people. It’s also the place where my mom and I — through our foundation, Let It Flow — fixed our first clean water well and restored clean running water to an entire community.
It’s one thing to build a new clean water well, but the reality is that in most places around the world, the wells already exist. The communities just don’t have the tools or the infrastructure to properly maintain them, so the wells break, and when they do, the villages don’t have the means to fix them, so they lose the access to running water they once had.
We repaired 15 wells in Ethiopia on that trip.
I’ve had some pretty cool moments in my life. I’ve stood on podiums and received medals and traveled the world. But the moment when those kids from Debra Brehan ran up to that well that was pouring out clean, fresh water — something they’d never seen before — it was on a whole different level. They were super stoked. It made me look back to Puerto Rico and the struggles we faced and think, That was nothing. These are the people who really struggle. These are the people who need our help.
And we didn’t stop there.
There’s a guy in Ethiopia named Israel Dejene. We call him Izzy. He takes care of about 40-50 kids out there. Most of them are orphans, and they all absolutely love skateboarding, and that’s mostly because Izzy brought skateboarding to them and to his city of Addis Ababa. Izzy came out to Debra Brehan, which is a couple hours down the road from Addis Ababa, to help us repair our first well. He’s an amazing dude, and we figured, since we’re in Ethiopia anyway and these kids love skateboarding, why not give those kids a gnarly place to skate?
So in addition to repairing wells, we also built the first-ever cement skateboard ramp in Ethiopia for Izzy and his kids.
When they saw us out there building the ramp, they were so stoked. I just hope they can take even a fraction from skateboarding of what it’s given to me.
My mom always says, “You can’t help everybody everywhere, but you can always help somebody, somewhere.” There are millions of people in the world who don’t have access to clean water. The unfortunate reality is that my mom’s right: We can’t help all of them. But as long as we’re helping one village at a time and we’re making progress, we’re gonna keep going and help as many people as humanly possible.
I don’t know if I’ll ever really understand why my dad decided to move us to Puerto Rico. I hated it at the time, but it’s given me a perspective that I don’t think I would have had otherwise, and it ultimately inspired my mom and me to do what we do with Let It Flow, which has brought so many other great experiences and memories to other people’s lives as well as our own.
Things have a funny way of working out. When you’re a kid, you never really understand why things are happening when they happen. If you pay attention and experience things and learn and grown from them, it’s pretty gnarly when later on down the road, you can look at some of those challenging times in your life and think, Yeah, I’m pretty glad it went down like that.
Nyjah Huston and his mother, Kelle, are the founders of Let It Flow, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing clean running water to the millions of people across the globe who don’t have access to it. Right now, select donors will receive an autographed photo of Nyjah and a chance to win a VIP trip for two to the Street League Championships in Chicago. To learn more, visit letitflow.org .