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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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November 19th, 2013
02:05 PM ET

Web exclusive: Matt Damon on clean water, the gift of play, and lessons from his mother

Tuesday is World Toilet Day, and while it may sound like a joke, the issue of sanitation and access to clean water is a matter of life and death for millions of people around the world.

Actor Matt Damon opened up to CNN about his work with water.org, passing on his mother’s tradition of giving, and the children that inspire him across the world.

"We were in Haiti a couple years ago, and we came into this little town where they were inaugurating a new pump, which is really a joyful kind of time. And everybody is celebrating this great thing that’s happening, and I sat down and talked to this little girl," said Damon.

The girl was 13 years old, the same age as one of Damon's daughters at the time.

"Once you have kids it's impossible not to see their face in every child you see," said Damon. "I said to this little girl, 'How much time are you spending collecting water?' And she said about three hours a day.

"I said, 'Three hours a day!' You know, 'So what are you going to do now that you have all this time. What are you going to do? Your homework?' And she looked at me and she goes, 'Psh, I don’t need more time to do my homework,'" said Damon.

The young girl said she was the smartest in her class, and the actor said he knew immediately that she was telling the truth.

"So I go, 'Oh okay, but you have this extra three hours so what are you going to do?' And she looked me right in the eyes and she goes, 'I'm gonna play,'" said Damon.

Damon said knowing this one little girl would now have the opportunity to play like every other girl her age was wonderful.

"But you think about the hundreds of millions of kids for whom that’s not an option, and not only do they not have those three hours, they may not even be in school because they’re scavenging for water," said Damon. "It’s not just a life or death issue, it’s a quality of life issue."

When he was a teenager, Damon's mother used to take him on trips abroad during the summer holidays. They traveled to Mexico and Guatemala, attended language schools, and lived with local families. The trips had a huge effect on him, and he and his wife are trying to pass those same life lessons on to their children.

"Our kids are growing up with quite a bit more privilege than my wife or I did," said Damon. "We talk a lot about what are the ways to help them understand and give them some context for the world that they’re living in and their place in it," said Damon.

"I think back to those trips with my mother as some of the most important and kind of instructive lessons that I had as a young person," said Damon.

"You’re not allowed to speak English and you're interacting with real people," Damon said of his childhood trips. "For an American kid you see a lot that you don’t see up here in America, and that’s a really, it’s a really helpful thing."

"Travel is such a beautiful thing, a gift for a kid to just, without even trying to teach them a lesson. Just let them be in that world and walk around in a different place, and those lessons just come," said Damon.

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