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Teens Jump Through Hoops to Raise Awareness of Water Crisis
"So, what did you do in school today?" "Nothing special." That's an exchange that takes place just about every day between kids and their parents. But for 25 students at Scarsdale Middle School in New York, a more accurate answer would be "something extraordinary" -- because they raised more than $10,000 for charity during their lunch break in just two days.
The students, members of the school's Human Rights Club, found an innovative way to raise money for an innovative project -- a water pump system that's powered by a children's merry-go-round to bring clean drinking water to rural African communities. The students used hula hoops to simulate the motion of the PlayPumpTM water system, bringing in a flood of donations.
The success of the project is a testament to the unshakeable idealism of the students and the guidance of two very special teachers. Human Rights Club advisors Meghan Lahey and Emma Wixted began crafting a human rights/social activism curriculum for their social studies classes about five years ago. The club, which is now in its third year, was developed as an outlet for kids to address some of the issues they learn about in the classroom.
"What we're really trying to teach them is how to be advocates themselves, how to be fundraisers," Wixted said. "We really want the kids involved in every phase of organization."
And involved they are. Club members are charged at the beginning of the school year with identifying and researching a key issue of concern, then devising a fundraising plan.
While last year's focus was on Hurricane Katrina, this year the kids pitched support for several causes, including youth AIDS, child labor, and the genocide in Darfur. However, it was the issue of water scarcity -- a subject addressed in the school's seventh-grade social studies and science classes -- that ultimately led them to focus on the work of PlayPumps International. It didn't hurt that superstar rapper Jay-Z had recently highlighted the benefits of the PlayPump water system in his teen-friendly MTV documentary, "Diary of Jay-Z in Africa: Water for Life."
But don't think for a second that the bright, motivated kids at Scarsdale Middle School were merely star struck by the celebrity endorsement. They were most affected by the film's vivid imagery.
"I saw pictures of how happy the children were to see the water, how they spun the pump delightedly, and how grateful they were that someone cared enough," said eighth-grader Nicole Chi. "Of course I wanted to help a similar village as well! How could I not, when it was obvious how badly the village needed water? I hate the idea that girls have to give up education just to bring water to their families so their families can survive."
Next, the kids in the Human Rights Club had to figure out how they were going to raise money for PlayPumps International. After ruling out a traditional candy-based fundraiser, Lahey and Wixted encouraged the students to consider a more symbolic approach that focused on raising awareness as well as money.
During a brainstorming session, the students began pursuing the idea of demonstrating a model PlayPump system. However, they quickly realized that conducting a simulation on the merry-go-round of a local playground would draw a limited audience. In an effort to bring the demonstration indoors to a larger crowd, the kids decided to fashion a mock system out of hula hoops and rope. Eight hula hoops, with students in the center of each, would be tethered to a central hoop held by another student. The kids would walk around the hub in circles, echoing the movement of the PlayPump system.
For two days preceding the event, promotional videos shot by two club members were played on a continuous loop in an open area of the school, while a number of teachers aired a PBS Frontline segment on PlayPumps International in their classrooms. One student created an informational brochure that club members could distribute to friends and family interested in sponsoring participation in the demonstration.
On the first day of the event, club members spent three consecutive lunch periods demonstrating the model water system for the rest of the school. The following day, the club offered "rides" on the makeshift merry-go-round for a suggested donation of one dollar. And while the sponsor funding was more than impressive, no one quite anticipated the overwhelming generosity of so many students, with such sizeable contributions. Kids from all grades began approaching club members with $5, $10, and $20, and one student even handed over a $500 check she had recently received as a gift.
Lahey attributes the students' outpouring of support in part to their identification with other children. "It's not some abstract, faraway thing," she said. "They see themselves in the kids that they're raising money for."
Recognizing that it costs $14,000 to install and maintain a PlayPump system, the Human Rights Club held a second fundraiser one month after the in-school demonstration. Each student received donations from friends and fellow students to take a daylong vow of silence in honor of African children who lack access to clean water. Additionally, the school's drama club elected to donate the proceeds from its spring play to PlayPumps International. The Human Rights Club ultimately reached its goal -- and then some -- in less than three months.
"We like to think that we've proved that, at the middle school level, these kids are thinking about things too and they're watching what goes on around them and they see that they can make a difference," said Lahey.
That sentiment is certainly supported by a recent e-mail to PlayPumps International from Human Rights Club member Micol Linfield. The eighth-grader signed her message, "a future human rights activist."