Like his childhood football role model Barry Sanders, Mac Noah is a man on the move. He’s fast on his feet and keeps his balance handling many responsibilities.
Whether cleaning the injectors at the Denver Water Recycling Plant or attending classes at the University of Colorado Denver, the 38-year-old Noah is quick to flash a bright smile and ask a question about any new acquaintance.
“Everybody is like a book,” said Noah, a water treatment tech operator at Denver Water since late 2014. “You get to meet a new person and hear their story of where they’ve been and where they’re coming from.”
Noah’s book reads like an unlikely fairy tale.
He was born in Liberia, an impoverished country in West Africa. He frequently visited the countryside with his grandmother, where he would swing on tires suspended from trees and play in the river. When he wasn’t outside, Noah was planted in front of martial arts movies.
It wasn’t until years later that Noah noticed the poverty all around him.
“We don’t really have a water system in Liberia,” Noah said. “You can find places where sewage is running down the street.”
Frustration in Liberia boiled over in the late 1980s, and Noah’s homeland was torn apart. More than 200,000 people, including several members of his extended family, were killed during Liberia’s first civil war, which spanned a bloody seven years, 1989-96.
Trying to protect his family, Noah’s father put his wife and seven children on a plane that left Liberia in the nick of time. Mac and his father were reunited with their family in Hamburg, Germany, before immigrating to the United States.
The family lived in Houston, then Savannah, Georgia, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, before finally settling on Chicago’s South Side. Noah attended Bolingbrook High School where he stood out as a running back and cornerback on the football team.
“I didn’t want to get hit,” Noah chuckled. “Which is crazy because when I was on defense, I would throw myself around.”
After high school, Noah sought to make his own mark. While his parents were vacationing in Denver, his father called and encouraged him to consider moving to the Mile High City.
“The only pictures I saw of Colorado were of snow, mountains and cowboys. I really was under the impression that there were horse-drawn carriages in downtown Denver,” he said.
Noah moved to Colorado in 1996 and enrolled at Red Rocks Community College. He pursued an associate degree in water quality while working a full-time internship at the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District.
“I really, really had to be disciplined with my time,” Noah said. “I pulled a lot of things in and just set myself on a schedule. I couldn’t just be on the phone for an hour talking to somebody about nothing.”
His classroom acumen and time management impressed his water chemistry teacher, Chance Green, who also worked at Denver Water. Green encouraged Noah to apply for an internship. He landed the position, and after four years, ascended to his current role at the recycled plant.
Given his background, it would be easy to draw a correlation between Noah’s childhood in Liberia and his work at Denver Water. It’s purely coincidental, he said.
But he’s quite aware of the difference that clean, safe drinking water can have on a society.
The World Health Organization reports 2 million deaths annually from unsafe water, poor sanitation conditions and hygiene. Listed among the world’s poorest countries, only one in four Liberians has access to safe drinking water.
Noah said those statistics “light a fire” in his heart to make a positive change in Africa. He is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering at CU Denver, determined to one day put his skills to use in Africa to improve lives there. One of his brothers still lives in Liberia, but Noah has not been back to see him — yet.
“I definitely want to go back,” he said.