Aquinas club funds new well in African community

Members of the Thirst Project club, from left, sophomore Scottie Maher, sophomore Will Essmyer and junior Riley Hilger at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park try to decide which community in Swaziland, located in southeast Africa, they will donate money to so that community can drill a well for fresh water. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

by Steve Buckner
Special to The Leaven

OVERLAND PARK — A club at St. Thomas Aquinas High School here, working in conjunction with a national organization, will bring clean water to a small community in the developing African nation of Swaziland.

Through a benefit choir concert and a generous donor, the Thirst Project club at the school has raised $12,343 to help fund a water well for a yet-to-be-determined community in Swaziland, which is located in southeast Africa. The money will go to a national organization also named Thirst Project, which will hire local workers to drill and complete the well.

On May 9, club members met and reviewed statistics for 11 Swazi communities under consideration for the well. The students compared the communities’ total populations, number of children in each village, current distance traveled to retrieve water and reported cases of illnesses caused by drinking unsanitary water.

The students narrowed their list to three communities being considered for the well. After conferring with the national organization, the club will make its final decision before the end of the school year.

“The students have pretty much taken this on and run with it,” said Joe Heidesch, club sponsor and show choir director at St. Thomas Aquinas. “It’s rewarding just seeing the kids’ joy in helping out and giving back.”

According to Heidesch, children ages 10 to 14 serve as the primary labor to go fetch water for these communities. The children — armed with two 5-gallon containers — can walk from three to 10 miles one way to collect water.

And the water the children collect is far from sanitary. Until a well is drilled for their community, the children get the water from bacteria-laden springs, ponds, rivers and earthen dams. Cases of diarrhea and cholera run rampant throughout the communities. The life expectancy in Swaziland is less than half of that in the United States.

Aquinas students first learned of Thirst Project when a representative of the national organization spoke last summer at the school’s show choir camp. The national organization returned to the school in November and provided more information about its work.

“We decided to do a club, and we knew a lot of our friends would join,” said Maggie McCabe, an Aquinas junior.

Forty-eight students have joined the club out of a school enrollment of 942. Club members are planning a walk/run this summer to raise funds for another well next year. People interested in supporting the club can go to Thirst Project Club Aquinas on Facebook to donate.

Thirst Project represents the world’s largest youth water organization. As of mid-May, Thirst Project had completed 2,217 projects that served more than 330,000 people in 13 developing countries, having raised $8.8 million.

Thirst Project is on track to provide access to safe, clean drinking water to all people in the country by 2022. The organization’s website states that 100 percent of all public donations go directly toward building water projects in the field.

The club’s first fundraising effort was a benefit show choir concert (with the fitting theme of “Do Something”) in April. Aquinas provided two choirs — the Saintsations and the Swinging Saints — and show choirs from Holy Spirit and Atchison High School rounded out the bill.

Through admission fees and passing the hat, the concert raised $2,343.

A few days after the concert, an anonymous donor came to Aquinas with a check for $10,000, which provided ample funding for the well to be drilled.

“The main thing I get out of [Thirst Project] is I feel like it’s easy to get caught up in our day-to-day lives . . . and it’s nice to help people who deserve help,” said Maddie Charles, Aquinas junior. “We kind of forget sometimes that people are struggling because we are so fortunate in our community.

“Our school has taught us well to serve others.”

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