The entire student body of Niagara Catholic Jr./Sr. High School in Niagara Falls joined in a project teaching global awareness. The seventh- through 12th-graders all learned about the need for clean water in South Sudan, along with the horrors of the Sudanese civil war through the book, "A Long Walk to Water," by Linda Sue Park.
Based on a true story, the book describes the struggles of Salva Dut, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan forced to flee his village after a school shooting, leaving his family behind. He later came to the U.S. and formed an organization to fund the drilling of bore hole wells in his village.
The book also tells of Nya, an 11-year-old girl who must spend eight hours every day fetching water from a dirty pond, the only source of water for her village.
Along with reading the book, the students saw videos in class and even had a Skype session with Dut.
The project began in November when teachers sought out a book the whole school could read. "A Long Walk to Water" was chosen because Dut lived in Rochester with a host family for 19 years. Teachers hoped to have him come to the school, but he now spends most of the year with his wife and children in South Sudan.
He comes to the U.S. only a couple times a year to speak at schools and organizations. The school's alumni association and student government contributed money to buy 200 copies of "A Long Walk to Water" for the school. One anonymous donor contributed $500.
In March, the students had a 40-minute Skype session with Dut, asking him about his experience.
"You kind of saw a mix of kids trying to figure out personal things about him and ways to relate to him," said Cora Wright. "There was a dead equal between how can I relate to this person and how can I see all the magnificent things that he's done that are completely bigger than I am."
One student asked how he managed to survive as he trekked from his village to a Kenya refugee camp. Dut said he followed tactics taught by his uncle, "Take one step at a time."
"He knew his family was watching over him even though they were presently still alive. He just felt his family with him," Julia Stranges added.
For the students, the project added new education practices to their standard book learning. This was the first time the school used Skype to communicate with someone, and the first time students actually met a character from a book.
"When a kid hears assigned reading, they immediately go, 'Oh, please no.' But I'm not sure there's a single student who regrets reading the story and being able to make a contribution," said Wright. "I think we were all able to make a connection and help. (Nya) had to walk days to get water. We go to a fountain and it's clean. We don't get sick from it. So, I think we all want to help. It puts it right in front of your face all of a sudden. When you read a book like that it's impossible to not want to help. Knowing we were able to raise even that much money feels really good."
To support Dut's "Water for South Sudan" organization, the school held a week of Jeans Days, where each student could forgo the school uniform and wear comfortable jeans for the cost of $1. Niagara Catholic raised about $1,000 for the week.
"The intention is to build a bore well, primarily because the cost to drill one well is approximately $5,000. So we were looking to raise at least some money to contribute to that amount," said Deacon Daniel Mackowiak, campus minister for the school.
Some of the YouTube videos the classes watched startled the students, and anyone used to clean water from a convenient tap.
"I remember in one of the videos they were showing the water bottles that they fill up at the river. I didn't even realize it was water at first because it was completely brown," said Stranges.
"And yet they were drinking it without any kind of purification," added Mackowiak, who also teaches science. Water-born pathogens are the leading cause of death around the globe, according to the World Health Organization.
The students expect this to have a lingering effect on their lives. Some will appreciate clean water a bit more, others might conserve the water they have. More fundraisers are expected in the school.
"I don't think this is something you forget," said Wright. "Every family does their own little thing in the way of helping others. Maybe you give some money to the SPCA. I think this would be added to your list. You give money to Toys for Tots, then maybe you give some to that foundation. I think, in general, it causes you to empathize more. I think you pay better attention to the news and you think about that situation happening. I think, as a person, it probably makes you more grateful, and that can affect how you go through your life. You might complain less. You might do a lot of things differently. I think this book will have a lingering effect."