During a week in the Dominican Republic, McKenzie Rhoades visited a villager’s home that flowed with clean water thanks to an initiative by her and other Rockford High School students. The sight made her eyes flow with tears.
“Seeing something that I’ve dedicated my high school career to, and knowing someone actually uses it … it’s hard to explain,” said the recent grad, struggling to find the words. “You can feel so full of sadness and joy and excitement. You just feel so … uhhh!”
Her exhaled emoticon drew laughs from Rachel Cruden and Samantha Schrotenboer, fellow members of the RHS Rotary Interact/Thirsting to Serve club, who also journeyed to the Caribbean island nation along with 17 other students and four adults. But they were plenty serious about their club’s work providing clean water in the Dominican Republic, by donating bio-sand filters that were originally designed at Cascade Engineering in West Michigan.
“Water’s a need for everyone, something you can work with in all places of the world,” said Rachel, a senior next fall. The filters, she added, “are something you can install that will have a lasting effect on a country.”
Club members have installed or paid for roughly 200 filters since Thirsting to Serve was formed in 2011, said Kelly Gardner, a teacher and the group’s adviser. In addition to those donated to the Dominican Republic, the group funded a well installed earlier this year at a school in Amokwo Ngbo, Nigeria, through the Samuel Omogo Foundation, a West Michigan-based charity. The school had gone 85 years without clean water.
Water: ‘You Have to Have It’
The water initiative is just the most prominent of many activities undertaken by Rotary Interact/Thirsting to Serve, which had about 40 active members this school year. The two groups merged about three years ago since clean water and eradicating polio are key goals of Rotary International, the parent group of Rotary Interact.
Club members tutor children at Hillview Learning Center, run a service club at Roguewood Elementary and play bingo with clients at Degage Ministries, a downtown Grand Rapids drop-in center. They also give “water lessons” at elementary and middle schools, educating students about the importance of clean water in developing countries.
It’s needed not just for drinking but for cooking, bathing, baby formula and other basic necessities, club members point out.
“You can’t very well go to school and get an education if you don’t stay hydrated, and aren’t well enough to get up and concentrate and not be sick,” McKenzie said. “Water is one of those things where you have to have it to do other things.”
The students who went to the Dominican Republic in June were not able to install new filters because of a government project to standardize all water filtration systems. But they saw the results of their group’s previous visits and fundraising, by visiting homes where filters had been installed.
“It was nice to see the money we raised went to something,” said Samantha, who graduated this spring. “We got to see what our hard work here has done to help them down there.”
Digging Trenches and Holding Hands
Club members had plenty of other work to do on their visit. They distributed food and helped build a school for residents in two small villages, called bateys, and sugar-cane workers near the coastal city of La Romana. Most of the workers are from Haiti and speak Creole, which Rachel could understand a bit of from her French classes. McKenzie and Samantha’s Spanish skills, along with an interpreter, helped them communicate with the Dominican residents.
Digging trenches and hauling cement blocks in 100-degree heat was no picnic, the students admit. But they were more than compensated by the children who happily greeted them when they arrived each day, clearly eager for love. One little girl ran up to Rachel every time and grabbed her hand.
“It was cool to see how holding their hand for a few short hours made such a difference to them,” Rachel said.
Students raised $1,100 each to make the trip, with another $200 coming from club fundraisers. The club tries to raise about $5,000 each year for the water filters and other activities. (Those interested in contributing may contact Kelly Gardner)
Julie Townsend Zahm went as a chaperone along with her daughter, a teacher in North Carolina. In her sixth trip to the Dominican, she has been impressed by how little complaining students do – even while digging a trench in a former dump under a hot sun. She thinks it has to do with seeing how much difference their work makes in a poor country.
“They don’t worry about the crack in their iPhone screen when they come back,” she added. “It’s not a priority.”