Lancaster Elementary first-graders, others try to make last days count for something long-term

Jeanne Paff (seated), a first-grade teacher at Lancaster Elementary School, looks up at a screen displaying the Skype chat that she and students at the school had with Georgie Badiel, the creator of the Georgie Badiel Foundation, on May 7. First-graders at the school were impacted by a book that was inspired by Badiel’s childhood experiences trying to bring clean water to her village. As a result, the students started a fund-raising campaign to dig a well in an African village.
Jeanne Paff (seated), a first-grade teacher at Lancaster Elementary School, looks up at a screen displaying the Skype chat that she and students at the school had with Georgie Badiel, the creator of the Georgie Badiel Foundation, on May 7. First-graders at the school were impacted by a book that was inspired by Badiel’s childhood experiences trying to bring clean water to her village. As a result, the students started a fund-raising campaign to dig a well in an African village. Photo by Steve Clark.

Lancaster Elementary School may now be closed, but if the school’s last classes of first-graders have their way, it will live on in a new form on the other side of the world.

Lancaster’s three first-grade classes are hoping to fund the construction of a well in the school’s name in the African country of Burkina Faso. The students were inspired to take action after reading a story in March about the scarcity of clean drinking water in the country. Their passion for the project has proven to be contagious; the fund-raising effort that started in their classrooms has steadily expanded to include the entire school and points beyond.

The story the first-graders read was “The Water Princess.” Written by Susan Verde and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, the children’s book depicts the childhood experiences of Georgie Badiel, a Burkina Faso native who spent her childhood walking long distances in harsh conditions for her village to fetch water, which came from unclean sources.

First-grade teacher Jeanne Paff remembers her students’ initial reaction to the book.

“As soon as I finished reading the book, there was total silence in my room,” she recalls. “And they were on the verge of tears. They were just like, ‘How can this be? How can it be that there’s people in the world that don’t have clean water? How can it be that people have to walk hours to get water that I wouldn’t want to drink?’

“They were like, ‘This is wrong. We have to fix this. What are we going to do about it?’”

Doing something about it soon took the form of working with the nonprofit organization that Badiel grew up to form, the Georgie Badiel Foundation. Committed to increasing access to clean water in Burkina Faso and its neighboring countries, Paff learned that a donation of $700 would enable the foundation to fix a well that had fallen into disrepair.

Paff’s students, though, had an even loftier goal.

“If we could raise $10,000 – which is an astronomical amount of money – we can dig a whole new well,” says Paff. “And give water to people who’ve never had clean water before.

“And the kids said, ‘That’s what we want to do.’”

The fund-raising process got underway in April when Paff’s class, along with Megan Bucher and Brettani Farthing’s first-grade classes, started making decorative tags. Circular and attachable to bookbags and key rings, the students adorned the tags with imagery inspired by “The Water Princess” – most notably a girl walking with a large jug of water balanced on her head, as Badiel so often did. After the teachers laminated and hole-punched the tags, the students began selling them for a dollar apiece to everyone at Lancaster.

The students’ Fifth-Grade Buddies stepped up to help them sell the tags. Also, Paff saw to it that other grade levels had the opportunity to read “The Water Princess” and were aware of what the first-graders were striving to accomplish. Before long, donations started coming in from other grades at the school.

“It has become more than just a few kids saying, ‘This is something we want to do,’ but as a school, they’re excited about what could happen if we’re able to accomplish this,” says Paff.

Outside the walls of Lancaster, students have been entreating the adults in their lives – parents, grandparents, etc. – to chip in money to the cause. And, sure enough, donations have flowed in from those sources, too.

“It’s gone beyond just, ‘Let’s do this school project and we’re selling these bookbag tags’; the kids are asking other people, ‘Please donate to this. This is important and you have money and you could be helping people,’” states Paff.

While it may be one thing to sell tags and ask for donations from the familiar faces in their lives, both at school and at home, it’s quite another for the students to petition people they don’t know quite so well for contributions. Yet, that’s what the students have done, mailing out hand-written letters to the community.

And the community has answered their call. The congregation of College Park Church, in Huntington, recently made a sizeable contribution – an astounding $3,000. With that donation factored in, the students’ fund-raising total, as of May 24, stood at an impressive $5,594.

One of the most motivating things to happen to the students during the fund-raising process was when they got a Skype call on May 7 from a very special person: Georgie Badiel herself.

Paff had arranged the call in an email exchange with a representative from the Badiel Foundation.

“The person I was working with, she wrote me back and said Georgie was moved to tears that our kids cared so much and she would love to help in any way she could,” recounts Paff. “And I said, ‘Well, would she Skype with us?’ And she’s like, ‘Sure!’”

Students peppered Badiel with questions about what life was like growing up in Burkina Faso. Between her first-hand accounts and pictures that she sent them afterwards, Paff says the experience made an impression on the students, just like reading “The Water Princess” did.

“I think it made a big difference and made them even more want to do it because they had a face to put with it – Georgie’s, but also the children that she sent us pictures of,” observes Paff.

“These are real people in the world someplace and I wanted them connected with,” continues Paff. “Here’s the person who inspired ‘The Water Princess.’ Here are the children that are right now in Burkina Faso. Here’s a little girl who has to walk and get water – today. And realize that it was real and it’s not just a picture book we read.”

If the students reach their fund-raising goal, Paff says it would be an accomplishment that would affect them positively for years to come.

“What an impact that would be if you are 6 or 7 and you realize, ‘I’m going to see something wrong and I’m going to take it on, even if people say this is something that can’t be done and I’ll make a difference,’” says Paff. “‘And I’ll remember, ‘When I was in first grade, we took this on. And we raised $10,000 and we got a well dug, because we didn’t think people should die from unclean water and have so much of their lives taken getting this water. And we did it.’”

To make a donation to the fund-raiser, Paff encourages people to visit the GoFundMe page set up by the school at www.gofundme.com/leaving-a-legacy-of-clean-water. She adds that donations in the form of cash or checks may be mailed to “HCCSC attn: Cindy Gray, 1063E-900S, Warren, IN 46792.” Checks should be made payable to the Georgie Badiel Foundation.

Ironically, as the fund-raiser forges ahead, life is winding down at Lancaster, which is closing due to the declining presence of school-aged residents in Huntington County. The final day for students was to have been May 30, while today, Thursday, May 31, is set to be the last day for staffers. As Lancaster closes, Paff, an 11-year veteran of the school, takes solace in the fact that a bright future is so tantalizingly close for a village half-a-world away.

“If we’re able to raise the $10,000, they will connect us to the people in the village where our well gets dug,” says Paff of the Badiel Foundation. “They will leave a commemorative sign that Lancaster Elementary helped bring clean water to this village.
“And if our focus this year has been ‘Leaving a Legacy,’ that would be a legacy.”