St. Charles fifth-graders raise money for South Sudan water wells

  • Kerri Johnson's remote fifth-grade class in St. Charles, seen here in a caricature designed by the students, raised more than $1,000 for an organization that repairs and builds water wells in South Sudan.

    Kerri Johnson's remote fifth-grade class in St. Charles, seen here in a caricature designed by the students, raised more than $1,000 for an organization that repairs and builds water wells in South Sudan. Courtesy of Kerri Johnson

Updated 5/22/2021 5:29 PM

It started as a way for St. Charles teacher Kerri Johnson to raise awareness with her remote fifth-grade class about water scarcity in South Sudan.

The students turned it into a call to action.


Reading "The Water Princess" and "Nya's Long Walk" as part of a biology unit on ecosystems, Johnson's students were stunned to learn about the difficulty finding drinking water in the war-torn African country. Wanting to help, they took it upon themselves to raise more than $1,000 for an organization called Water For South Sudan that repairs and builds water wells.

"The people in South Sudan travel miles to get clean water while we waste more water when brushing our teeth or showering," student Aria Bhate said. "We take water for granted while people in South Sudan cherish water."

"The Water Princess" and "Nya's Long Walk" detail the journeys of African villagers as they spend hours walking to water sources that are often polluted. Even after finding the water, it must be boiled before drinking to prevent illness.

The walks are arduous and dangerous, and prevent the youngsters from attending school. Every aspect of the stories struck a nerve with the students.

"I felt really sad for the people who had to live with little to no water," student Layla Schultz said. "I also felt bad that they had to walk so far just to get a bucket of water. It made me so grateful for the water that I have."

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Johnson could tell the books had a major impact on her students as they struggled to picture themselves in the same situation. Johnson said the students were inspired to help, and she reached out to Water For South Sudan to see what could be done.

"It was a great experience (for the students) because they felt empowered when they realized they could do something to help," she said.

The money was raised mostly by word-of-mouth as the students' families pitched in and found friends and neighbors to contribute. By raising more than $1,000, Johnson's class became eligible for an Iron Giraffe Challenge drawing that featured meet-and-greet prizes with leaders associated with Water For South Sudan.

According to the Water For South Sudan website, it costs about $15,000 to drill a well because of the difficulty in sourcing and delivering materials. Sometimes drillers must dig 300 feet to tap into the underground aquifers.

"It feels amazing to know that our class has made a huge impact for South Sudan," student Nathan Ladines said.

Johnson sees the effort as a nice cap to a tough school year. Because of health issues, she applied to teach remotely this year in St. Charles Unit District 303.


A 28-year teaching veteran, Johnson normally teaches at Wild Rose Elementary School. This year, though, her remote classroom is comprised of students from five elementary schools that will feed into both district middle schools and both high schools.

Many of the students didn't know each other at the start of the school year, but experiences like this brought them together.

"They come from different experiences, and they get to share those experiences," Johnson said. "They've made friends that they normally wouldn't have made."

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