Roxboro Middle School students walk for water

Roxboro's sixth-graders walked around the track on Nov. 24 to raise money for Water for South Sudan. [photo by Amanda Sell]

A child’s curiosity has the power to change the world.

That’s what happened in a case that started in the aisles of Whole Foods grocery store, setting off a chain of events that would eventually wind its way through the classrooms of Roxboro Middle School and end up in a village in South Sudan.

Years ago, Rosemary Pierce’s children were curious about an employee at Whole Foods. His accent was heavy and his skin so dark it looked like midnight. After hearing her children’s repeated questions, she suggested they ask him directly, and a conversation—and a friendship—began. The Pierce family listened to Akol Madut’s story of being one of Sudan’s Lost Boys, the child soldiers of the 1980s, left parentless and homeless during that country’s brutal civil war. Madut, now 35, spent months wandering the African countryside in search of shelter, before eventually becoming a commander in the rebel army in charge of 6,000 young boys. He was 12 years old.

After a dramatic escape coordinated by the International Red Cross and the U.S. Army, nearly 16,000 Lost Boys (and 300 Lost Girls) arrived in America 15 years ago. Madut was the first of 37 to settle in Cleveland.

Pierce wanted to share this inspiring story with a wider audience and arranged for Madut to visit Roxboro Elementary School, which her children attended. The following year, Melissa Garcar, International Baccalaureate coordinator, suggested that the sixth-grade English classes read a novel about Sudan’s Lost Boys and invite Madut to visit.

Thus began an ongoing interdisciplinary unit that had the power to change a child’s perspective. Roxboro Middle School purchased class sets of A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, a fictionalized account of two very real stories of 11-year-olds in Africa: Salva Dut, a refugee of the Sudanese conflict in 1985 who, like Madut, wandered the continent searching for his family and a safe place to stay, and Nya, a girl who made a two-hour journey to a pond for fresh water twice each day, which prevented her from attending school.

The entire sixth grade at Roxboro Middle School read the novel last October. Students’ reactions underscored the power of the story. Janya Franklin said the book made her “feel grateful because I don’t have to walk all those hours just to get water.” Her classmate Ryan Coleman added, “The book made me sad because I wouldn't want to have to go through that. . . . And it wasn’t fair that only boys could go to school because girls have to fetch water.”

According to Amanda Sell, humanities teacher, “Reading the book was a difficult and emotional experience for students as they learned about war, tragedy and death from a first-person perspective.” When they completed the book, many were relieved that Salva had survived, but “devastated that so many had died.”

The real-life Salva Dut, who was adopted by a Philadelphia family in 1996, returned to his homeland in 2003 and started the Water for South Sudan project, a nonprofit organization that builds wells in rural villages. Access to fresh water not only improves the health of entire villages, but also frees girls to attend school.

After reading the book, Roxboro students wanted to do something to help their Sudanese counterparts. What more natural thing to do than to walk themselves to raise money to help provide access to fresh water?

The teachers set a modest goal of $500 for their first walk-a-thon in support of Water for South Sudan, which occurred on Nov. 24. Of the 204 sixth-grade students at the school, at least 150 made donations, qualifying them to participate in the morning walk around the school track. Students raised a total of $1,800, more than triple their initial goal.

Miles Anderson, who raised nearly $300 from 12 donors, captured the feelings of many of his classmates on the eve of Thanksgiving weekend, when he said, “Even though I have everything I need, there are some people who don't. And I’m just happy that I’m helping them.”

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher, longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, is a graduate of the Heights schools and a former Coventry School teacher. An active member of the Fairfax PTA, she blogs at

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Volume 9, Issue 1, Posted 10:45 AM, 12.31.2015