Bozeman non-profits work together on international water education

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

Ali Johnson and her 15 high school classmates walked into an elementary
school classroom in Guatemala, armed with glitter, illustrated
books with games about clean water, and a song.

It was the beginning of a spring 2011 semester that took the high
school girls—a group from the Bozeman-based Traveling School—from
Guatemala to El Salvador and Chiapas.

First, they created a human knot.

Everyone stood in a circle, put their hands in the middle, right over
left, and joined hands across the group, purposely entangling themselves.

Secretly, a couple of the girls started out with glitter on their
hands. Without letting go, the group twisted and turned, laughing
as they climbed over each other until the knot was untangled. Then
everyone looked at their hands—glitter covered them all.

The girls explained this was a metaphor for the importance of hand
washing. They talked about the things you touch during the day, and
about how germs are spread. This game, and all the hand washing
material they taught, was provided by Project WET Foundation, a nonprofit
also based in Bozeman.

The Traveling School girls next taught a song about hand washing. The
song describes how to wash properly, and lasts 20 seconds, the same
amount of time you should spend washing your hands.

“They got really into it,” Johnson said. “I’m pretty sure they took it
home.” Then the Guatemalan kids taught the girls a song back. “It was
really cool,” she said.

This was the second collaboration between the
Traveling School and Project WET, two Bozeman
non-profits with international reach. The first
was in Mozambique, the previous fall. It seems a
natural partnership.

The Traveling School offers fully accredited
semesters for teenage girls in Africa, South
America and Central America. Its coursework
includes standard high school classes, experiential
education, cultural immersion and outdoor
adventure.

History classes, for example, are tailored to the
region where that semester is studying. And on
a visit to the equator in Ecuador, the girls would
learn about Incan culture and astronomy.

“It’s hard to wrap your brain around because it
really is pretty far outside of the box,” said Genifre
Hartman, the school’s founder and director.

The students come from all over the U.S. and
internationally, many from public schools, with
half to two-thirds on scholarship.

“I could never get [excited about] classes in high
school,” Johnson said. But during the Central
America semester, “school would come alive.”
When they were
reading Bridge of
Courage, a collection
of stories told by
Guatemalan guerillas,
the girls ended
up meeting one of
the guerillas in the
book.

Because the school
visits the same places
each year, it builds
on past connections.

“It’s a reciprocal
relationship,” Hartman
said. “The girls
think they’re going
to change the world,
and they’re always
amazed at how
the world changes
them.”

photo courtesy of the Traveling School, volunteering in a school

When the school decided to get more involved
with water education, it made sense to work with
Project WET. The foundation is dedicated to
reaching children, parents, teachers and community
members worldwide with water education.

Project WET believes that education is a key
component in addressing the issues that result in
more than 3.5 million deaths worldwide every
year from water related diseases. Washing hands
with soap and water has been proven to reduce the
instance of these diseases by 47 percent, said Morgan
Perlson, Project WET’s international projects
assistant.

The foundation works toward its mission by publishing
educational materials in several languages;
providing training workshops on watersheds,
water quality and water conservation; organizing
community water events; and working to build
an international network of educators, water
resource professionals and scientists. It has host
institutions in 50 U.S. states and 55 countries, and
offers more than 75 publications.

“[It’s] a classic Bozeman nonprofit circle of
everyone helping each other,” Hartman said of the
partnership.

Project WET initially developed its colorful healthy habits
books in 2007, designing them with help from African teachers
and locals. Now published in five languages, the books
have reached over 10 million students in 20 countries.

“The idea is to train the trainer, who trains others,” Perlson
said. “We develop easy-to-teach, fun, hands-on activities,
and empower students by helping them understand the
relationship between water and health.”

A video from Uganda shows a local teacher leading students
in a call and response version of the hand washing song.
Usually the song goes to the tune of Frère Jacques, but in
this case the teacher made up his own version, and he’s
smiling as he sings loudly. The kids, dressed in matching
yellow school uniforms, clap as they sing.
This is exactly the idea behind Project WET’s games—people
learn better when they’re having fun, Perlson says.

photo courtesy of the Traveling School, pumping water in school

In fall of 2010, the Traveling School
went to South Africa, Namibia and
Botswana, two of which were new
countries for Project WET.

“[The water education materials] provide
a platform for our students to feel
like they’re contributing,” said Leah
Knickerbocker, the school’s logistical
coordinator. “Before it was a challenge
to decide what to teach and to come up
with activities. Now they can go into
a school feeling prepared and teach
something they think is valuable.”

For the African and Latin American
students, the information means more
when it’s coming from a peer, Perlson
says. “In a lot of the schools teachers
are a higher up authority figure, and
I think it’s neat for them to have this
idea of learning from other students.”
It’s a different way of learning for the
African kids, in particular, Perlson
said. While students in the U.S. do a
lot of hands on learning, that’s rare in
Africa.

“These girls can make an impact if one
or two kids take what they learn home
to their families,” Perlson added.
“They have the chance to save lives,
even just going into one school
teaching the hand washing lesson
and playing a game of tag.”
Following their semester, the
Traveling School girls are given a
weighty task.

“We say, ‘Now you’ve seen this
poverty, you know it exists, what
are going to do about it?’” Hartman
said. Each class must create an independent
group project to help better
the world.

The spring 2010 group built theirs
around the flooding they’d seen near
Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley
in Peru. The girls talked to local
women’s cooperatives that were
devastated because their seeds had
washed away. The Traveling School
girls returned to the U.S. and raised
over $1,500 for the women to buy
seeds.

“That’s a powerful thing to give to a teenager, but they can handle it.”

This story was first published in the winter 2011/12 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.