Walking for water: JFK students raising funds to help drill wells in South Sudan

Elena Skelley-Newton participates in a walkathon at JFK Middle School as part of a sixth grade social studies unit on Africa. The students read a book called, “A Long Walk To Water,” and then raise money to build a well in South Sudan.

Elena Skelley-Newton participates in a walkathon at JFK Middle School as part of a sixth grade social studies unit on Africa. The students read a book called, “A Long Walk To Water,” and then raise money to build a well in South Sudan. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Liam Gaffney, a sixth grader at JFK Middle School, attaches beads to a string as a way to keep track of how many laps he has completed.

Liam Gaffney, a sixth grader at JFK Middle School, attaches beads to a string as a way to keep track of how many laps he has completed.

Elena Skelley-Newton participates in a walkathon at JFK Middle School as part of a sixth grade social studies unit on Africa. The students read a book, “A Long Walk To Water,” and raised money to build a well in South Sudan.

Elena Skelley-Newton participates in a walkathon at JFK Middle School as part of a sixth grade social studies unit on Africa. The students read a book, “A Long Walk To Water,” and raised money to build a well in South Sudan. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

Mareatha Wallace, a paraeducator at JFK Middle School, hands out beads to students as a way to keep track of how many laps they have completed during a walkathon to raise money for a nonprofit that drills wells in South Sudan.

Mareatha Wallace, a paraeducator at JFK Middle School, hands out beads to students as a way to keep track of how many laps they have completed during a walkathon to raise money for a nonprofit that drills wells in South Sudan. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Mareatha Wallace, a paraeducator at JFK Middle School, hands out beads to students as a way to keep track of how many laps they have completed during a  walkathon to raise money for a nonprofit that drills wells in  South Sudan.

Mareatha Wallace, a paraeducator at JFK Middle School, hands out beads to students as a way to keep track of how many laps they have completed during a walkathon to raise money for a nonprofit that drills wells in South Sudan. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 06-05-2024 2:31 PM

Modified: 06-05-2024 5:50 PM


NORTHAMPTON — Over the span of a few days between the end of May and the start of June, members of the sixth grade class at JFK leave their classroom and head outdoors to walk together in laps around the school building. But these kids are doing more than just embarking on a leisurely summer stroll — they’re helping raise money for a good cause.

Each lap a student completes around the school, a pledge is given to donate money for Water for South Sudan, a nonprofit that drills wells in the African country where many citizens continue to struggle with access to clean drinking water.

Will Bangs, one of the school’s sixth grade social studies teachers, said the walk was part of the Africa unit of the school’s social studies curriculum. Students read the book “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park, which details what people in South Sudan must endure to have clean water, such as children walking eight hours a day to fetch water for their families.

“It’s now turned into a cross-curricular collaboration with the math department,” Bangs said. “So right now, in the sixth grade math classes, the students are calculating their water footprint. They’re figuring out how many gallons of water they use a day, for the shower, for the sink.”

Students pitch donations for the walkathon to their friends and family, who pledge money based on the number of laps around the school the students complete. Bangs estimates that each student ends up walking around an average of 20 total laps as part of the walkathon.

Then the kids find out, at the end of the book, that one of the characters they read about, a man named Salva Dut who was separated from his family during the Sudanese civil war in 1985, isn’t just a person in the book — he’s the real-life founder the nonprofit that children’s walkathon gives money to.

“They drill wells in rural South Sudan to help people get access to clean drinking water, but it has some extra benefits,” Bangs said of the nonprofit. “It allows young women and girls the chance to go to school.”

For several sixth graders, what they’ve learned about the situation about South Sudan has been an eye-opening experience.

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“It’s kind of scary, honestly, because they’re not getting access to something that should be a necessary part of living,” said Bunny Chichester, 12. “You need water, and they’re not getting really fresh access to that.”

JFK Middle School started taking part in the walkathon fundraiser three years ago, when social studies teacher Anna Arabian realized the nonprofit they read in the book had partnered with other schools to help raise money. “We started talking about it during COVID and then obviously, the following year, we had the opportunity to start doing it,” Arabian said.

Since then, the school has raised more $10,000 to the organization, and recently had a well drilled in South Sudan funded from combined money the school has raised over the past three years.

“Part of it is because they had to wait for all the money to come through,” Bangs said. “But also in South Sudan, they have to wait for the right time of year to drill in the right conditions. There’s still a lot of conflicts going on in South Sudan, so they’ve had to wait for it to be safe for their workers to drill there.”

For Georgia Dejasu, a fellow sixth grader, partaking in the walkathon means helping make a difference for people who may not be as fortunate.

“We’re trying to help places that don’t exactly have the same rights or equipment as we do here,” said. “I think it’s really cool because you get to be part of trying to make the world better.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.