Nfld. & Labrador·In Depth

10-year-old Joshua Wilcox stole Clarenville's heart. His death broke it.

Icy water claimed the life of Joshua Wilcox, 10, on Christmas Day in 2019. But now, the devastated town has found a way to honour him: by guaranteeing clean water to children half a world away.

Residents raise $15K for well in Iraqi village to honour Joshua Wilcox

Elizabeth Wilcox holds her son Joshua. (Submitted by Elizabeth Wilcox)

It was a Christmas everybody in Clarenville, N.L., wishes they could forget.

On Dec. 25, 2019, Joshua Wilcox and his father played shinny on a frozen Clarenville pond, a popular body of water dotted with hockey nets and equipment: big enough for a game, but small enough to stroll around in 90 seconds. 

The Wilcoxes meant to happily pass that winter afternoon like they'd spent many before it. This time, the boy brought along a fresh CCM stick, a gift from Santa just that morning. 

"He was obsessed with hockey. His father is obsessed with hockey. It's like a religion, I can't figure it out," his mother, Elizabeth Wilcox, recalled in a phone interview soon after the one-year anniversary of her son's death. She laughs softly at the memory.

That day, Joshua climbed into his dad's side-by-side, fitted with a small plow to clear the pond's surface of snow and shavings.

The machine broke through the ice, just metres from the pond's edge, submerging and trapping Joshua.

It took an hour for neighbours and fire crews to free him. Doctors pronounced the 10-year-old dead in hospital later that day, just as many families across the province were tucking into their holiday meals.

"When Joshua passed away, it was a Tuesday," Wilcox said. Her family booked a flight that night from Mexico, her birth country, she said.

A little boy, a huge impression

They held a funeral within the week. Three-hundred people packed into the family's parish, leaving relatives stunned at how one little boy could have made such an impression on an entire town.

"There's a lot of love for the kids here in Clarenville," Wilcox recalled telling them gently.

A year later, the family knows they will never completely recover from their loss.

But they've found a means of dampening the pain: honouring the rambunctious, kind-hearted boy by supplying water — the element that took their son's life — to children halfway across the world.

Joshua and his father, Bryan Wilcox, shared a love of hockey. (Submitted by Elizabeth Wilcox)

On Christmas night and into Boxing Day, as news of the boy's death spread through Clarenville, hockey sticks popped up on porches around the neighbourhood, paying tribute to a boy widely known for his puck-handling skills, sportsmanship and infectious friendliness.

Hockey teams printed his name on the backs of their jerseys. His parents dropped the puck at a game in his honour. One former NHLer even tipped his hat to Joshua in a Facebook post.

Taking the salutes far afield

In the ensuing weeks, with Joshua far from forgotten, a church group called Clarenville Connect felt they could take those salutes one step further.

Or rather, thousands of kilometres further.

"We really wanted to honour Joshua," said Marsha Rowe, one of the group's fundraisers. 

"It was devastating to the whole community. It's like everything just shut down," Rowe said. His school, his church, the entire hockey league — everyone mourned. 

"Being Christmas Day made it that much worse," she added. "It's supposed to be a day of hope and celebration and family time, and then such a tragedy hit.… It just affected everybody so deeply."

Punctually, once a year, Clarenville Connect selects a village to sponsor, raising enough money to pay for a family's education or build a well. After the tragedy, Rowe and the others put their heads together, and considered naming the next well project after Joshua.

"He used to watch the [World Vision] commercials on TV and tear up," Rowe, also a friend of the Wilcox family, recalled. 

"It was heartbreaking to him, to hear that kids were getting sick because they didn't have clean water."

That empathy — rounded out by an intense competitive streak, according to his mother — compelled Joshua to claim first place in the previous year's run. 

He crossed the finish line that day ahead of anyone else. Then he stood on the sidelines, cheering on every runner who passed him, refusing to gloat about his victory.

The town knew Joshua as a skilled, fiery, loving 10-year-old. A well in Iraq is carrying on that memory. (Submitted by Marsha Rowe)

"I don't think there was a shy bone in his body," Rowe said. "He was very vibrant … and just enjoyed every part of life. I don't think I ever heard him complain about anything."

Recalling that race, she said, triggered the group's idea to hold another one in tribute.

"He made such an impact on us, and was so enthusiastic about it," she said. "We thought we would do it in his memory."

Rowe didn't know Elizabeth Wilcox had been thinking about the well, too. In fact, she felt nervous about broaching the idea, worrying the family might think Clarenville Connect was exploiting their son's memory.

Then Rowe got a text.

"It sent goosebumps through my body," Rowe said, describing the moment she read Wilcox's request. 

"We were like, 'Wow. This is meant to be.'"

'I know about struggling for water'

Elizabeth Wilcox needed help.

She was looking for a way to build a well in her son's name — an act she found both honourable and personal, having grown up in the Chihuahuan desert, in a city without reliable access itself.

In her hometown, "most of the time, people are struggling for water," Wilcox said, describing how it trickles in sporadically through a 50-kilometre pipe from the nearest source.

"Only certain hours of the day it was available," she said. The scarcity plagued farmers, killing crops and livestock. Violence percolated amid the perpetual drought. 

"For me, I know [about] struggling for water.… I can understand how they feel," Wilcox said. 

"I was trying to teach that to Joshua."

Joshua, second from the right, was widely known for his enthusiasm and friendliness. (Submitted by Elizabeth Wilcox)

Wilcox had hoped, one day, to take Joshua on a pilgrimage of sorts, traveling together to underdeveloped countries as missionaries. His personality, she added, would have suited that lifestyle.

"He was very friendly — to him, friends were everything," she recalled, describing how Joshua would purposefully strike up conversation with even the shyest children at hockey tournaments across the province. She attributes the fiery spirit to his Latin heritage.

"He was always protecting the kid that was not well liked. He didn't like bullying," she said. 

"He loved life. He was ready to meet the world."

Hope springs in Iraq

The well, in Al Nawfeli village in war-torn northwest Iraq, started pumping water just 10 days before Christmas. The Wilcox family received the World Vision report, confirming its completion, on Dec. 15.

The charity said it used the $15,000 raised in Clarenville to restore the community's bore hole, ending six years of crisis triggered by armed conflict with ISIS, which had razed the village's sole water source.

Since 2014, the 250 remaining families could choose to travel four kilometres for contaminated water, which led to health problems, or 14 kilometres for clean water that they had to pay for. 

With the recovered well at their doorsteps, they no longer have to choose, the charity said.

This photo of the water source was contained in the World Vision report. The charity reports that 250 families now have access to clean water, thanks to Clarenville's efforts. (Submitted by Marsha Rowe)

"Thank you, Clarenville," the report said, "for making such a huge impact globally. The legacy of Joshua will live on around the world."

Bryan Wilcox, Joshua's father, declined an interview, but offered his own writing and photographs. It was "a blessing and an honour to join efforts to help families that had suffered so much," he wrote in December, in a Facebook update for those who had contributed.

"My wife always [dreamed] for Joshua to become a missionary," he added. "I guess in one sense God fulfilled my wife's heart's desire in a remote village in Iraq."

Icy water claimed Joshua's life, but now, his mother says, it springs from his memory, quenching an entire village.

"It hurts. We cry a lot," Wilcox said.

"But God has a reason. We don't need to understand."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Malone Mullin is a reporter in St. John's. She previously worked at CBC Toronto and CBC Vancouver.

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