Sophomores Michaela Wells and Laurel Withee recognized Earth Week last April by attending at lecture about the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Little did they know a 60-minute lecture would lead them to an 11-hour drive.
Nebraska Wesleyan University’s Green House Project invited Geoff Stevens to campus as part of its Earth Week activities. Geoff Stevens, a social work professor from Western Michigan University, explained to his audience how the City of Flint switched water sources, turning to the Flint River as its main water source during a two-year transition to a new water source. The Flint River has historically been of poor quality, Stevens explained, and was found to be highly corrosive, exposing its residents to widespread lead contamination.
“They said, ‘since we came to Nebraska, you have to come to Flint,’” Withee recalled of the lecture. “So we did.”
Wells, of Lincoln, and Withee, of Papillion, drove more than 11 hours to spend a weekend experiencing the water crisis firsthand.
“I wanted to not only help their community, but learn how such an at-risk community continues their everyday lives and have hope for the future,” said Wells.
Wells and Withee spent 10 hours distributing 15,000 water bottles throughout the city while listening to residents’ personal stories and struggles. They attended Vernon Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had worked closely with Western Michigan University’s Water Task Force. The congregation shared more personal stories with the NWU students. They also had the opportunity to visit with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and shared ideas for change and plans for continued help.
“These people are not going to leave their community because it is their community,” said Wells. “They are committed to sticking around and surviving, no matter the circumstance.”
Withee said she became passionate about helping after learning about the effects of lead in children. Of the 90,000 residents exposed to lead in Flint, an estimated 10,000 were children, said Withee. Health effects of lead exposure in children include impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and delayed puberty.
Withee said the trip exposed the reality of the social issues she studies in class.
“The saddest part was watching kids playing outside in the summer and playing in kiddie pools with water balloon fights just trying to be normal when they were actually throwing toxic waste at each other,” she said.
Withee added that the trip provided her a deeper understanding of the Flint water crisis as well as social issues like unfair distribution of wealth, and the value of everyday tasks like taking a shower and drinking a glass of clean water.
Their work in Flint is done but not forgotten. They plan to set up informational booths on campus to raise awareness and collect donations for Flint. Wells said she plans to apply what she learned in Flint to her life at Nebraska Wesleyan.
“Everyday I hope to do something that benefits someone else in the world,” she said. “We all have the opportunity to change the world and Flint inspired me to start my journey of change.”
—Story by Emmalie Harris, public relations intern