At the beginning of the year, teacher Catherine Dykes gathered a small group of fifth-graders inside a classroom at Ames Elementary School in Riverside, teaching a reading unit and uncovering the issue of limited access to clean water in South Sudan.
Never did she imagine that during the 2020-21 school year, the boy whose story was the inspiration behind the novel she was teaching will step foot inside that very school building and share his story of survival for her students.
This winter, 12 fifth-graders at Ames read ” A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park, a book which alternates between the stories of an 11-year-old girl in 2008 and an 11-year-old boy in 1985 — a Sudanese girl, who endures a daily two-hour walk for water from her home, and a boy, who becomes one of Sudan’s refugees, or a “lost boy,” who travels Africa on foot in search of family and a safe place to stay.
The book, which Dykes has taught for the past two years as a part of the students’ grade-level curriculum exploring the theme of “journeys,” is one she wanted to share to help children understand the similarities and differences in those their age in places the students may never have heard of.
“I’ve always wanted to bring texts to students that increase global awareness, because we do kind of live in a bubble,” Dykes said. “You really have to make efforts to get beyond that bubble, because if it’s not in your face, you’re not going to see it.”
Unbeknownst to Dykes, after finishing the novel, her students began to talk amongst themselves, inspired by the message of the text and looking for a way to take action and help Sudanese children like those in the book.
Enter the Iron Giraffe Challenge, a nationwide fundraiser through the organization Water for South Sudan. Since 2014, the challenge has helped raise $1.6 million for the organization’s mission of providing access to clean water and hygiene education in South Sudan.
“A handful of [the students] discovered the challenge and said, ‘We have to do this,'” Dykes said. “They had all these ideas for fundraisers and I said, ‘OK, you’re right — we have to do this.'”
Under Dykes’ guidance, the students developed a detailed fundraising plan to participate in the challenge.
The first task? Meeting with Ames Principal Todd Gierman to share the idea and convince him to bring the challenge to their school.
Their presentation on the background of the novel and the importance of the challenge was compelling enough to get Gierman on board with bringing the fundraiser to Ames.
“They were just so invested,” Dykes said. “They went through the presentation and were so passionate because their hearts were into it.”
The 12 students then got to work, breaking off into groups and introducing the project to their peers by putting together age-appropriate presentations on the challenge for students in grades K-5.
With the fundraiser’s kickoff at the school’s annual PTA Family Dance in February, the group began collecting their first donations. Those who donated at least $1 were given a paper slip to commemorate their donation and a blue fundraiser bracelet.
Donors were also invited to test their balance by walking a 6-foot stretch with a pitcher of cotton balls on their heads, the way many Sudanese women balance containers on their heads when they go out to fetch water to bring home.
Then, through March 13 (Ames’ last day of attendance before COVID-19 closure), the students placed coin cans outside of the school’s main office and solicited donations in the lunchroom a few days a week, turning the fundraiser into a grade-level contest, with the class who donated the most in the end winning a popsicle party.
By the end of the fundraiser, the students were able to raise $1,400, qualifying them for entry into the Iron Giraffe Challenge’s Facebook drawing for schools who reached the organization’s fundraising goal of at least $1,000.
To the students’ surprise, Ames was selected as the challenge’s national Grand Prize winner.
Their reward? A personal visit from Salva Dut, Water for South Sudan’s founder and senior advisor, and one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan whose life served as the inspiration for “A Long Walk to Water.” He will speak in person at an assembly at Ames sometime during the 2020-21 school year.
For the students, the focus on the fundraiser was not to be the big winner, but to simply bring awareness of the issue of inadequate access to clean water for children half way around the world.
“My favorite part about participating in the Iron Giraffe Challenge was getting to help a country in need,” said fifth-grader Chloe Cochran. “This project caused me to realize that not everybody has what I have, and it also helped me to be thankful for my easy access to fresh water.”
For fellow fifth-grader Henry Hall, the challenge was the students’ way of showing their peers that no matter how small, their efforts could help make someone else’s life a little bit easier.
“Water is life [and] we will help people get fresh, clean water,” he said. “We learn how to deal with a real-life situation. Great heroes start somewhere — this is our place.”
In the end, for Dykes, teaching the novel to 10 and 11 year olds paid off in more ways than one.
“It really brings a tear to my eye thinking of how hard they worked and the lasting impact their work will have,” she said. “Collecting coins is a small action, but it can make a huge difference. The fact that the students were so passionate and invested is what made this so successful.”