Clean water accessibility focus of Franciscan retreat

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Students at Mater Dei School in Sioux City recently learned that one in six people do not have access to clean water.

The information was presented by the charism team with the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque during a retreat held on March 22, World Water Day, to raise awareness about global water issues.

To emulate the struggle of finding clean water, students took part in an exercise led by the retreat facilitators in which students went to different water stations and encountered various situations. They either found clean drinking water, no water, dirty water, water that would be spilled or an abundance of water – much like the circumstance in the real world.

After participating in the activity eighth-grader Isabelle Bertram learned how time-consuming it was to carry water back and forth.

“Some of the water was dark and dirty. Other times you got double the water,” she said.

The five-person Franciscan team included Julie Tebbe, Sister Michelle Balek, Sister Michaela Galles, Sister Pat Doody and Lisa Schmidt.

As the retreat got underway, Tebbe told the students they would participate in activities to help open their eyes even more to the necessity of clean water.

Sister Michaela informed the students that for many people around the world, water is in danger.

“Many people find their daily water supply in polluted water from ponds and streams,” she explained. “Hand pumps are going dry. Muddy water or trash-laden waterways for those living in the slums is not uncommon.”

In their prayers and retreat time, Sister Michaela told the students they would have the privilege to thank God for the gift of clean water and ask the Lord to help the thousands of people who struggle, due to the lack of safe water every day.

“The Sister Water Project started with some education that the sisters were doing around justice issues through the lens of water. We came to discover clean water is not accessible to everybody,” noted Sister Michelle, who said they soon set out to do something about it.

The Sisters of St. Francis launched the Sister Water Project in 2006 to bring safe water to villages in Tanzania and Honduras, which were areas the sisters already had a presence.

“We sat down as a committee and questioned if we could raise $40,000. We wondered if people would respond,” she said. “Here we are 10 years later and we have raised $1 million – about 135 wells in Tanzania and 20 water systems in Honduras.”

Sister Michelle pointed out the cost of a well in Tanzania is about $5,500. Sometimes a parish, school or individual will make the effort to fund an entire well. But even one person’s $1 contribution, she stressed, has a ripple effect and goes a long way.

“With every well in a village, it can serve 300 to 500 people,” she said. “There are so many health benefits. People can do the work they need to do because they are not sick.”

Tebbe described the struggle to carry buckets of water – many weighing 40 pounds – miles and miles. This chore and sacrifice often falls on women and children, mainly girls. This creates a cycle of poverty for them.

“By 2025, half of the countries world-wide with face some kind of water stress or water shortage,” explained Tebbe. “By 2050 – 33 years from now when all of you will be adults and probably have kids of your own – if our world’s water crisis continues as is, then 75 percent of our world’s population will be affected by water scarcity.”

In addition to participating in World Water Day on March 22, Mater Dei has made the water project a focus for Lent. Prior to the closing prayer during the retreat, Principal Mary Fischer announced that the school’s Immaculate Conception and Nativity Centers had raised a total of $4,506 thus far.

Tebbe said that total moved the charism team to tears.

“Not one single person could have made that happen – it’s because you are working together to make something happen,” she said. “Every little bit matters.”

Mater Dei also challenged other schools to recognize World Water Day on March 22 as a “Blue Out.” Six other schools accepted the challenge: Bishop Heelan High School, Holy Cross School and Sacred Heart School, all in Sioux City; Sacred Heart, Spencer; Algona Garrigan Elementary School and St. Mary School, Humboldt.

Amanda Woodall, lead teacher at Sacred Heart in Spencer, said they first learned of the Sister Water Project at a session presented by Tebbe and Fischer a few years ago at the Diocesan Ministries Conference. When the challenge went out this year for schools to participate, Sacred Heart found it a perfect chance to become involved.

“Throughout this Lenten season, we have been focusing on the importance of water. Students read the Bible story about the Samaritan woman at the well in their classrooms, decorated water bottles to be shipped to a school in Haiti, as their well water has been unsafe from Hurricane Matthew, and also talked about ways they can conserve the water we do have now,” she said.

Alexandria Palmer, a Spencer Sacred Heart third-grader, stressed the importance of having safe water for everyone in the future.

“It reminds me of the story of that woman at the well.  She was a big sinner and Jesus forgave her for the bad things she did in the past,” she said.

With a goal of raising $100 for the “Blue Out” on March 22, the Spencer school far surpassed their goal and raised $450. Earlier in the month, Tebbe offered a presentation for the school.

“I really think that our students have been motivated to bring more money since her presentation, because Julie really did a nice job presenting about the Sister Water Project,” Woodall said.

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