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Walker, Cross Creek Charter Academies Tackle Sudan Water Needs, Learn Valuable Lessons

Rebecca Thomas watched closely as her sixth-grade students processed the information: Nearly 30 million Sudanese people don’t have access to clean drinking water. That’s about three times the population of Michigan.
 
The Walker Charter Academy teacher could see their thoughts reflected in their facial expressions.
 
“They went from ‘Why don't they just turn on the faucet?’ to ‘These people are really hurting! What can we do to help? Please Mrs. Thomas, help us raise money for a well!’”
 
The motivation behind the fundraising idea came from studying the book “A Long Walk To Water” by Linda Sue Park.
 
The book is based on a true story about a Sudanese boy named Salva Dut who survived terrifying experiences to lead hundreds of others to safety in Kenya. He eventually returned home to install deep water wells in remote villages.

Students set out to raise money to build a well and have collected in a variety of ways:
  • The Cold-Cash Challenge: An all-school competition where classes compete to bring in the most cash. The class who wins will be given the opportunity to put Mrs. Thomas into a dunk tank in the spring.
  • It’s December, Drink Water: Instead of ordering sodas and lattes during the holiday season, drink water and donate that saved money to help build a well. 
  • Skincare for Sudan: Participate in a skincare clinic via Zoom by a Mary Kay sales director (a friend of Walker instructional paraprofessional Susan Anderson) and part of the sales proceeds will go toward the students’ goal.
 
To get the word out about these events, students tested their leadership and public speaking abilities in front of classrooms throughout the school, while kids at another school were tested in other ways.
 
Getting physical
 
Less than 20 miles south at Cross Creek Charter Academy in Byron Center, students got a real sense of what it is like for Sudanese children to haul all that water.
 
Colleen LaBeau, Lisa Campbell, and Kelly Dearlove’s sixth-grade classes worked in pairs to retrieve water from a local pond. When they returned to the school after their two-mile trip, they filtered the water.
 
“Many were surprised how difficult it was to carry the water (even half full) back to school,” LaBeau said. “They couldn’t even imagine doing this twice a day, every day, to provide water for their families.”
 
In all, 85 students plus teachers and parent volunteers made the walk.
 

Chip Kragt, director of programs and operations for an organization called 20 Liters taught the group about the possible toxins, bacteria, and waterborne illnesses that can be found in the water. Kragt’s organization focuses on creating clean water opportunities for the people of Rwanda by providing water purification filters and was the recipient of Cross Creek’s donations.
 
“Many students were shocked to see and learn about these issues, and it was really interesting to learn how the filters can remove most of these bacteria and viruses,” LaBeau said.
 
A moment of emotion
 
Back at Walker, Rebecca Thomas saw a change in her students as they read deeper into the book, and donations started to add up.
 
“When the money started coming in they watched the GoFundMe website like crazy, literally applauding when someone new gave,” Thomas said. “I have always told my students, ‘You don't just live in Walker, you live in the world. What you do in that world matters.’"
 
Near the end of the book, Dut gives a popular TED Talk, explaining the hardships of his life and his need to return to provide clean water for his father’s village and the people of South Sudan. Thomas’s students were drawn in by the power of Dut’s story.
 
“They didn't empathize at first but turned a corner towards the end of the book,” Thomas said. “You could see the light bulb go off in their heads and some of them had tears in their eyes.”
 
Combined, the students at both schools have raised over $4,000 with more coming in throughout January. Although not enough to fund an entire well of $15,000, the effort provided insight into the lives of others.
 
About National Heritage Academies:
Walker Charter Academy and Cross Creek Charter Academy are part of National Heritage Academies (NHA), a charter school management company in Grand Rapids, Mich. with 98 tuition-free, public charter schools across nine states, serving more than 60,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. For more information, visit nhaschools.com.