When roughly 100 students made their way into the Newtown Middle School auditorium on Thursday, February 20, their former Reed Intermediate School teachers were waiting for them to deliver a message: children in Liberia are drinking clean water thanks to them.
As the students entered, many shared hugs with their former teachers — Valerie Pagano-Hepburn, Georgia Smith, Petrice DiVanno, and Lil Martenson — before sitting down for a presentation.
“We brought you here because we have something very exciting to share with you,” said Ms Pagano-Hepburn.
Before Newtown’s fifth grade was moved to Reed Intermediate School, reading The Pushcart Wars by Jean Merrill was part of the curriculum at Sandy Hook School. The book tells the story of a clash between pushcart vendors in New York City and the increasing truck traffic that competed for space. In 2007, Ms Pagano-Hepburn introduced it to her sixth grade students at Reed, and the students worked to create their own “pushcarts” filled with selected foods and other items. After completing their pushcarts, the students sold the items competing like in the book. That year the profits were donated to charities selected by the students.
Prior to Pushcart Day at Reed near the end of the 2012-13 school year, Ms Pagano-Hepburn said the students had to create their pushcart, determine what goods to sell, make the goods, and price the goods. Most parents, Ms Pagano-Hepburn said, donated the money needed to front the creation of goods.
“It was very generous of them to do,” said Ms Pagano-Hepburn.
The students ended up raising roughly $2,800, in nearly all “quarters and nickels,” according to Ms Pagano-Hepburn.
“This was the first year when we produced the most profit,” Ms Pagano-Hepburn, “so we, the teachers, want to thank you for going beyond.”
Where To Donate?
But, as Ms Pagano-Hepburn said, “Then the difficult part came. We had to decide who to donate the money to.”
In previous years donations had been made to organizations like the Dorothy Day Hospitality House in Danbury and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, according to Ms Pagano-Hepburn.
Then the two clusters learned about a donation of a well in Liberia made by Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, Wash., in memory of the lives lost at Sandy Hook School on 12/14.
Reed fifth grade teacher Karen King was brought on board to help oversee having the well built. Ms King has long been involved in many volunteer activities.
The video explained that one billion people worldwide lack access to clean water, 80 percent of diseases are caused by “bad water,” clean water is deep in the ground, and digging down to create access to clean water is possible.
“I got to be your hand,” said Ms King, “because your goodness and your kindness reached all the way from Connecticut from your little clusters all the way across the ocean to Liberia and it changed lives.”
While Ms King was traveling in Liberia this past summer, she had the opportunity to visit the well in Liberia built by Kamiak High School, and she sought out a site for Reed’s well.
“After that I waited — I was in Liberia for about a month — and I wondered, where is the well going to be?” Ms King explained.
The New Life Academy
She wanted to find the “right place and the right time” for the well. She ended up at New Life Academy, a school in Monrovia, Liberia.
“When I got out of the car that day, I didn’t know that what I was about to see was going to change lives for everybody,” Ms King said.
She shared photos of New Life Academy, which she described as “probably the poorest school I have ever seen.” Photos showed that the roof was starting to fall in, and garbage was strewn throughout. Ms King said New Life Academy has about 300 students.
The parents in the community scrape together all the money they can to pay for the school, and the students go to school in shifts, a morning and evening shift, in order to fit into the school, Ms King said.
“No books. They had no toilets. They had no water, and they really needed a helping hand,” said Ms King, while more photos were being shown of the site.
A group of parents and teachers sat down with Ms King and shared information about New Life Academy that first day.
“They earnestly and honestly and very sincerely asked if I could help at all,” Ms King continued. “And the great thing for me you guys, was that I could help, because of you. You Pushcart Warriors, all of you, from this beautiful place came through for the people at New Life Academy.”
A new well was built and completed by December 10, and Ms King said the new well will provide clean water for a long time.
A sign designed and created by local artists near New Life Academy reads, “This well is dedicated to the memory of the 26 Sandy Hook School angels, given by Reed Intermediate School, Newtown, CT, USA, 2012-2013. Kindness matters and love wins.”
Messages from students at New Life Academy were also shared with the now middle school students that read, “God bless you,” and “You have given us life, because water is life.”
“This is only the beginning…” Ms King told the seventh grade students. “Imagine what you are going to accomplish with your life.”
Seventh grade students Beth Mottola said she thinks, “It is cool how we got to give people water.”
Beth also said she thought some of the other ideas the two clusters came up with were deserving, but, she added, building the well changed lives.
“I think it was pretty amazing how we could give people such a great gift,” said seventh grader Rory Tiesler.
Standing next to her, Fallyn Kirlin said she thinks it is “astounding” how the Pushcart Wars were able to give people a “new life, truly.”