TODAY | August 16, 2011
MATT LAUER, co-host: We are back now at 8:11. Ann 's been reporting about the terrible famine and drought in parts of Africa . It's a problem that could be remedied if enough people pitched in to help. Well, a nine-year-old Washington state girl decided to do her part by forgoing birthday presents to raise money for a cause. Tragically, she died before her goal was fulfilled. But as NBC 's Lee Cowan explains, that's when something remarkable happened.
LEE COWAN reporting: Everyone who knew her said it was Rachel Beckwith 's smile that was unforgettable. And yet for those she never met, it was her heart that mattered most. On her ninth birthday, Rachel decided, instead of presents, she wanted donations, money for thirsty kids in faraway lands to get a clean drink of water.
Mr. SCOTT HARRISON: We've been blown away by the wish of this little girl .
COWAN: She raised $220. She vowed to do it again next year on her 10th birthday. But then tragedy struck. In July, a pile up on I-90 near Seattle claimed more than a dozen cars, and one life, Rachel's . Family and friends were inconsolable. The best memorial, they figured, was just to keep Rachel's water drive going. So they did, and then came the flood.
Mr. RON UPSHAW (Talk Radio Host): All right, looking at Rachel's ninth
birthday wish on the charity: water Web site right now.
COWAN: Her story spread on talk radio, on Facebook and Twitter . And soon, Rachel's tally grew.
Mr. UPSHAW: There were times where we were on air talking about it, where I'd just be hitting the refresh button on my browser and it would go up a thousand dollars at a time.
COWAN: In California , April Gully was one of them.
Ms. APRIL GULLY: I just -- I get really emotional thinking about her passion and just that her life wasn't in vain.
COWAN: Strangers have even donated to her family.
Unidentified Man: Her basic idea of just loving and giving, those two things are so simple. And in such a broken world it's really easy to get behind that.
COWAN: Rachel set out to raise just a few hundred dollars. Her total is now over a million, enough to help more than 50,000 people get clean water for life. It's a record that stands not only for its size but for what it says, that in her death, Rachel taught the rest of us how to live. For TODAY, Lee Cowan, NBC News, Seattle.
LAUER: Rachel 's mom, Samantha Paul , is with us now, along with Scott
Harrison, the founder and CEO of charity: water. Good morning to both of you. And Samantha , my condolences on your loss.
Ms. SAMANTHA PAUL (Mother of Rachel Beckwith): Thank you.
LAUER: Tell me about Rachel .
Ms. PAUL: She was always so giving and so loving. Even at a pretty young age, she -- for her first haircut when she was five, she wanted to donate her hair to Locks of Love to make wigs for kids with cancer. And then after we did that, she wanted to do it again. So the next haircut, we did the same thing. But she was always going out of her way to think about other people and just an amazing little girl .
LAUER: Yeah, she sounds like it. This accident happened only three weeks or so ago.
Ms. PAUL: Yeah.
LAUER: A very short time. She did not make it out of the hospital. How long after her death did you decide to carry on this wish?
Ms. PAUL: It was actually before she passed. We decided to open up the campaign again and it just took off even before she passed.
LAUER: What was your reaction to the response? I mean, this was a little girl that very few of these people ever knew, and yet they responded, they connected in some very emotional way.
Ms. PAUL: You know, I'm still blown away by the response that we've gotten. I just -- I'm a loss for words, reading the comments and you know, hearing how people from all over the world are being touched by her and what she wanted to do for people.
LAUER: And Scott , I mean, she fell, what $80 short of her wish that first time around and boy, has she exceeded that now. Let me just read a couple of comments. Adam Dunn , who sent in $20, "Your amazing story of selflessness has reached us down here in Australia . Rachel is an inspiration around the world." Julie Erneck, $20, "It's currently the dry season in East Africa and the need for fresh water is great. Thank you for your generous spirit, the impact of your life and mission, Rachel ." And Andrea Yeager , $30, "Touched our hearts, tears are flowing. The kids contributed their money, my eight-year-old said soon there will be too much water in Africa ." I mean, why do you think this is happening?
Mr. HARRISON: I think people are just overwhelmed by the unselfishness of this little girl . You know, no birthday, no gifts, no party, you know, she just, she cared about others, you know. Learning that kids didn't have clean water , something so basic, and wanting to do something about it. Not being paralyzed.
LAUER: Rachel had a goal. She wanted $300, that's what she wanted to raise.
Ms. PAUL: Yes.
LAUER: It's over a million now. It's something like 3,000 times what she had hoped to raise.
Ms. PAUL: Yeah.
LAUER: So have you now set a new goal?
Ms. PAUL: It changes daily, basically.
Mr. HARRISON: You know, Matt , I remember, I was up, you know, until about midnight waiting for 1,000 times her goal, at $299,000, I was like, I need to screen shot this and that seemed big. You know, 1,000 times her goal. And now, who knows?
LAUER: Well, Samantha , again, she sounded like a remarkable little girl . And I 'm so sorry for your loss.
Ms. PAUL: Thank you.
LAUER: But it's amazing that she lives on with this effort.
Ms. PAUL: Yeah.
LAUER: And we are going to make sure that our viewers understand this more and can get in touch with this because if you'd like to know more about
charity: water, you can head to our Web site at today.com. Thanks both for being here. We're back in a moment right after this.