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West Fargo seventh graders raising funds for Sudanese famine crisis

Liberty Middle School STEM 7th grader Elijah Kirkeby fills gallon jugs with water in Buffalo River State Park on Friday, May 8, 2015 near Glyndon, Minn. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

About 300 West Fargo seventh graders are on a mission to raise $5,000 to help build a water well in Panyijiar, South Sudan, an area where 2.5 million people face catastrophic famine similar to the 1980s.

The three teams of students from Liberty and Cheney Middle Schools have been working since mid-April on a transdisciplinary classroom unit that includes science, geography, math and language arts, said Liberty language arts teacher Jane Laux, who started the project five years ago.

Team Pride is made up of Cheney seventh graders. Team Gravity represents Liberty Middle School's STEM program and Team Trailblazer consists of Liberty seventh graders.

Each year the program has a different focus but always involves reading Linda Sue Park's novel "A Long Walk to Water," in which an 11-year-old boy who spent many years as a refugee returns to Sudan to drill wells that provide water to remote villages.

Students heard the story first hand from Lost Boy Gat-kier Machar, a Concordia College custodian, who actually lived that experience, Laux said.

They read the book in preparation for their own walk held last Friday, collecting and carrying water in milk jugs, about eight pounds, a three- mile distance at Buffalo River State Park near Glyndon, Minn. The experience provided a "small taste" of what people in Africa go through to have drinking water, said said Jaime Swanson, language arts teacher at Cheney Middle School.

The students collected pledges for each mile walked to help fund the Panyijiar well project. "This walk couldn't come at a better time," said Laux, noting that it costs $12,500 to build a well.

The project promotes cultural understanding among students and helps them realize there are real-life issues that they can help with if they want to, said Swanson.

Students are excited about helping build water wells, she said. "Some of them have raised an amazing amount of money. We have a lot of students here from Africa. I think that has helped a lot to motivate them."

The project also makes them aware of situations in underdeveloped countries "so hopefully they can value and appreciate what they have here a little more," Swanson said.

On April 30, Alpha Company 231 of the North Dakota Army National Guard assembled its portable water purification unit in the Cheney school parking lot to demonstrate the process to Team Pride.

"We're educating the young kids on how we in the military purify water," said Sgt. First Class Tyler Rupp, as students peppered him with questions.

"Our goal here is trying to educate them, especially with the project they are taking on in Africa. When they can connect the dots and see there are real-world applications to learning, I think it's more interesting to them," Rupp said.

"This is a real-world thing that America does in a lot of places around the world," said Adam Gelhar, assistant Cheney principal. "I think they got a much better idea of the amount of equipment and process for purifying water."

The water purification demonstration complements the students' life science curriculum. From a geography perspective, students have been able to study the political dimensions of water and conflicts that arise over water globally, he said.

"We try to organize our learning around some of the challenges students will experience in their future," Gelhar said.

On Friday, students will hold a book fair at Barnes and Noble from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to help further their fundraising efforts. They will also present their projects related to the design of culturally-appropriate solutions for environmental problems in another country at Barnes and Noble and West Acres Shopping Center.

If you would like to contribute to the well fund, contact Laux at