Last year, 7th graders at Lowell Middle School read A Long Walk to Water for their social studies class. The bestselling book alternates between fiction and nonfiction to share the story of what it’s like to be an 11 year-old in Sudan. While the two stories in the book are separated by more than 20 years, they share a common theme: uncertainty and hardship.
“We learned in the book what a difference water can make,” says Tamara Hanson, who teaches social studies at the middle school. Not only is the water in Sudan described as dirty and unsanitary, one of the main characters must make an eight hour walk each day to collect it for her family. As a result, her day revolved around this long walk. Going to school and getting an education were impossible.
After reading the book, the 7th graders did an amazing thing. Rather than simply reflect on how fortunate they are to having running water in their houses, they decided to take action. Lowell Middle School students decided to dig a well in South Sudan.
Helping to Provide Water for South Sudan
The students learned Salva Dut – the person at the center of the real-life story in A Long Walk to Water – had founded a non-profit to provide access to clean water in his homeland. The organization, Water for South Sudan, is a personal passion for Dut, whose father died of a water-borne illness.
To help with the cause, students set an ambitious goal of raising $15,000 to pay for one new well. Lowell Middle School also one of 117 schools nationwide that have taken the Iron Giraffe Challenge. The challenge, named for the well-drilling rig used by Water for South Sudan, asks schools to raise at least $1,000 toward a new rig. Participating schools will be entered into a drawing to win a personal visit from Dut.
Students Take Up the Challenge
Raising $15,000 is a tall order for 12 and 13 year-olds, but Hanson says students have been enthusiastic. The effort got off to a good start, helped in part by a $5,000 donation from the Lowell Rotary Club.
However, students weren’t able to reach their goal before the end of the school year, and the project was passed on to the incoming 7th grade class. The new class also read A Long Walk to Water as their introduction to the effort. “The 7th graders last year started it,” explains current 7th grader Lilly Kooistera. “I told them we have to finish it,” Hanson chimes in.
To do that, the current 7th grade class sold candygrams at Christmas. When a parent volunteer secured a donation of 720 bags of M&M’s from Mars Inc., students did a second round of candygrams for Valentine’s Day. “We made a bunch of posters and hung them in the hall,” Lilly says of their sales effort.
Then, during the recent parent-teacher conferences, students hit an important milestone. They raised $971 during the course of a two-night bake sale. That amount let them break through the $10,000 mark and head into the home stretch of their fundraising efforts.
Hanson knows it will be tough to raise an additional $5,000 before the end of the school year, but she’s hopeful. She really would like to the current 8th grade class – the students who initiated the project – see it completed before they move on to high school. If the goal isn’t met this year, the project will be passed on to next year’s 7th grade class.
Bringing a Human Element to an International Issue
When Lowell’s First Look sat down with a group of current 7th graders to discuss the project, it was clear they saw this as more than a school assignment. “It really changed my views about Sudan and what they go through for water,” says Emily Struckmeyer.
It has also made students realize how little people know about some countries. “A lot of people who think of South Sudan think about soldiers and deserts and don’t think about the people there,” says Jackson Fowler. Sitting across the table, Emma Schmidt adds, “A lot of people don’t even know Sudan exists.”
For Hanson, one of the greatest benefits of the project has been allowing students to see the human side of the issue. It’s one thing to know people don’t have access to clean water and another to hear directly from those who are affected. While the news is full of stories about refugees, Hanson notes, “We don’t always get the human aspect.”
Beyond that, students have learned clean water is more than a sanitation issue. “[Sudanese] can build schools, have health care and set up markets if they don’t have to worry about water,” Hanson explains.
How You Can Help
The final big fundraiser for the current 7th grade class will be a silent auction held in April during Lowell Middle School’s academic showcase. During last year’s auction, items such as paddleboard lessons and gift certificates for Wolverine Worldwide were offered. Current students are working to gather similar items and other gift certificates or goods to auction off this year.
If you would like to donate to the auction, contact Tamara Hanson through Lowell Middle School at 987-2800. Last year’s 7th grade class also set up a Crowdrise page where direct donations can be made. Note: the fundraising total listed on this page only reflects the money raised through Crowdrise and not the entire project total.
Once the final $5,000 is raised, the gift will be donated in the name of the community of Lowell, not just the middle school. For Hanson, that decision was an obvious one, given the generous donations already received from individuals and organizations in and around the city.
Lowell Middle School students will probably never meet those who benefit from their well. However, it seems likely the people in South Sudan who use it will never forget the kindness of students half a world away who gave them a life-changing gift.
Featured students (l to r)
- Front row (holding flag) — Emma Schmidt, Lilly Kooistera, Nate Cleaver
- Back row — Evyn Schneider, Emily Struckmeyer, Jackson Fowler, Tamara Hanson (teacher)