Michael O’Neil, Director of Global Safety and Security
Save the Children International
April 14, 2016
It’s a nippy 29 degrees and I can see my breath. The sun was shining a few moments ago, a rare occurrence, but now it’s obscured by dark clouds, and the biting wind blows at our backs, bringing with it a flurry of snowflakes. But the people still come, descending on the driveway, thirsty.
Thirsty might seem a strange word to describe people in a snow storm in a region surrounded by the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, but it seems an apt description for the residents of Flint, Michigan. My numb fingers load cases of water into one woman’s car. Her baby is in the passenger seat asleep. She needs water, not only for drinking, but also to bathe her baby. “Thank you,” she mouths through her closed window as the last case is loaded and the car trunk is closed. The baby, oblivious to the ugly weather raging on outside, continues to sleep.
I’m here in Flint with Save the Children as a part of the humanitarian response to the water crisis. We’re helping distribute water, healthy food, and hygiene supplies. And perhaps even more importantly, we are here partnering with early childhood education programs to provide learning opportunities and nutrient rich foods to help mitigate the impact of lead.
The crisis started two years ago when the city’s water source was changed from the treated Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the FlintRiver. The improperly treated water corroded the pipes, which then contaminated the drinking water, exposing 100,000 people to elevated levels of lead and other metals. Over 27,000 children have been exposed, and are now at risk of impaired hearing, impaired blood cell formation, and critical developmental delays.
For parents of small children, like the woman whose car I loaded, the risks of bathing their children in this water are just too great. They are advised to use bottled water. But imagine, having to pour a couple of gallons of bottled water into a basin each time you had to bathe your child. It’s a little easier with the gallon-sized jugs, but today, we only had the individual bottles. “My hands get raw opening so many bottles,” she said when we told her we were out of the jugs. “But, it’s what you got to do.”
Good nutrition, rich in iron, calcium and Vitamin C — and high quality early learning programs, can help reduce the harmful effects of lead exposure.. At a day care center at the local YWCA, Save the Children is providing young children with that vital infusion of critical nutrients to bolster the immune system and mitigate lead exposure. “Look at my mustache! See?” says Elijah, 5, his upper lip slathered with green. Another student, four-year-old Jameer, overhears and shouts that he likes the pink one best, “because it tastes good.” “Pink is my favorite!” cries Adonai, 4, in obvious agreement.
One of the mothers at the daycare came up with the idea as a creative way to get her daughter to consume fruits and vegetables. There are three recipes so far that we simply call Pink, Yellow, and Rainbow. The Rainbow smoothies actually turn out green, but Katie, the head teacher at the daycare, gets the kids really excited going through the colors of each of the ingredients. The red comes from the apples, the orange from the orange juice, and by the time she gets to green… “Spinach!” the kids shout, Adonai throwing her hands in the air. Jameer downs his smoothie and proudly shows me his empty cup.
He must be thirsty—thirsty for nutrients to keep his body strong and safe. The woman at the distribution site is thirsty too—thirsty for water that won’t harm her baby. And Flint is thirsty—thirsty for a real solution to the water crisis. Save the Children is here doing what we can to quench that thirst. But one cup of water isn’t enough. There are no quick fixes for the water crisis. Save the Children intends to continue to support young children in Flint for the long-haul. In addition to improving the nutrition of Flint’s most vulnerable kids, we are also partnering with the University of Michigan-Flint’s Early Childhood Development Center, and with child care providers across the city to ensure that children are able to participate in learning and play opportunities that are designed specifically to help with young minds continue to grow and develop, despite the negative impact that the lead has had.
We are very grateful that the generous support of GSK and their employee giving program is helping us to respond. Every child in Flint has a right to grow, develop and thrive —- Save the Children is here, partnering with Flint, to help ensure that every child has a fighting chance in life.