Giving up to give back

Students from Sun Valley Middle showcase the bright blue bracelets they wore for two weeks as a reminder to drink only filtered or tap water. The entire school took part in a “water challenge” in which students gave up non-water beverages for two weeks, donating the money they would have spent on those drinks to The Water Project, an organization that works to bring clean water to areas in sub-Saharan Africa through the building of wells, sand dams and other water technologies. As of Thursday morning, the fundraiser brought in almost $3,300.

INDIAN TRAIL – For students at Sun Valley Middle School, saving lives is as easy as drinking water.

The school’s 1,400 students recently gave up every beverage except tap or filtered water for two weeks to raise money for The Water Project, an organization that works to bring clean water to areas in sub-Saharan Africa through the building of wells, sand dams and other water technologies. The organization also finances sanitation and hygiene education and community mobilization.

Last month, seventh-grade science teacher Diana Ollis was teaching a unit on weather when she stumbled upon The Water Project. The students were learning about water and how it’s the foundation of weather, and Ollis wanted to do a water-related activity. After reading about the organization, she knew she had to get her students involved.

“It’s a nice company. I loved the setup,” she said.

The Water Project doesn’t simply receive donations and thank the contributors. The organization is interactive, allowing donors to specifically choose where their money goes – including the geographic location and type of project – and allows them to follow the project through photos, GPS coordinates, field reports and emails with regular updates.

“When you donate, you can designate where it goes, which I like,” Ollis said.

Ollis decided simply getting her own classes involved wasn’t enough and reached out to other classes. Before long, the entire school was taking part in a “water challenge.”

For two weeks, starting Oct. 1, students vowed to give up drinking everything except water and take the money they would have spent on other beverages – sodas, slushies, Starbucks, etc. – and donate to The Water Project.

“For the month of October, we set up fundraiser and jumpstarted it by the water challenge,” Ollis said. “We told (students and parents) about The Water Project and what it does and had them take the money that could have gone to consumption (of other beverages) and put in a bucket for two weeks and at the end of the two weeks … contribute to the cause.”

She added, “We’re not taking money out of people’s budget. We’re rerouting, redistributing it. They really got on board with this.”

At first, some of the students were flabbergasted at the idea of giving up everything but water for two weeks, Ollis said. But after learning more than one in seven people in the world don’t have access to safe drinking water and one in five deaths in children under the age of 5 worldwide is due to a water-related illness, they realized they needed to help.

“Some of them were like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” she said. “But we told them if you give up one thing that you drink on a regular basis, that will work also. Some of them did give up all their extras and have done nothing but drink water, and some gave up one (drink) and put that money aside.”

During the fundraiser, the students were given blue bracelets they could wear to remind them they were participating in the water challenge. Ollis said the grade levels combined brought in an average of $100 per day of money redistributed to The Water Project.

The students also are competing with one another to see which grade level can raise the most money. The winning grade level will get to watch “The Lorax” and eat free popcorn during school on Oct. 31, along with bragging rights.

To wrap up the fundraiser, the school designated this week – the third and final week of the challenge – to be “community week” in which the students are encouraged to reach out to the community and promote The Water Project through talking to parents, friends and family members.

Ollis even heard a student talk about going to a restaurant and sharing about The Water Project when the server asked why he was ordering water with his meal.

“Kids have been coming up and going, ‘Can we put up flyers in the community?’” Ollis said. “They were really talking it up.”

Ollis challenged the school to raise $7,500 – the amount it takes to build a well – by Friday, Oct. 19. As of Thursday morning, the school raised a total of $3,299.

“The goal we set for school … is really high. We have about 1,400 students so for the kids to reach that goal, it was definitely going to have to be a community effort,” Ollis said.

The students have been encouraged to promote the project via word of mouth within sports teams and other activities. Some parents also have begun reaching out to companies, asking them to donate.

But even if the school doesn’t reach the goal, the money could combine with another school or organization’s fundraisers to cover the cost of the well, or the school could designate another project the money could go toward, like a sand dam.

“There are seven different types of water projects to do,” Ollis said. “The money might go toward one of the other types of projects and fund the whole thing, or combine with another group to build the well. Something’s going to happen. No matter how much (the students raise), they’re going to affect the lives of somebody.”

Ollis has been pleased with the amount of support the fundraiser has received from the school, parents and the community, and she’s thrilled to see the enthusiasm students have shown during the challenge.

“I have enjoyed (talking to) the people at The Water Project. I have enjoyed talking to the kids about the project and what it’s about,” she said. “I think it’s something we might do during our water unit every year.”

Want to help?
To donate to The Water Project in the school’s name, visit The last day to donate is Friday, Oct. 19.

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