Let’s take a close up-view of four 14-year-old girls I know, surrounded by five 30-gallon plastic tanks set at different heights, connected with a tangle of plastic tubing, some going in the tanks at the top, some coming out at the bottom. From close-up, it looks just like a middle school science fair project. But….
These girls commissioned themselves to design and build a water filtration system to reuse “gray water,” the water you wash your hands and veggies in, and your socks. The kind of water that usually goes down the drain after one use. But in a desert-like environment, no one wants water to be used just once. So, they jimmied together tanks, tubing, sand, gravity, charcoal and at the end, you can drink the water in the 5th tank.
Who are these girls? They are participants in our STEM education initiative (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) that ensures that youth who lost their chances for formal education, who lost their homes to war, who were carried off by their families as toddlers to a refugee camp 12 years ago to keep them alive – that’s who they are.
They are also Syrian refugee youth in the Zaatari refugee camp where every drop of water has to be preserved, conserved, recaptured and reused over and over – because life is water, especially when there is so little of it. Kudos to them for coming up with a science-solution to a problem they are living inside of – that they face every day.
Let’s pan out in time a bit from this close-up view. The insights and experience of designing, testing, and improving a solution to a serious problem is now “baked in” thanks to the STEM experience. They have become more than young persons shunted aside from opportunities and sidelined into space defined by the chain-link fencing around that refugee camp.
Instead, they are what I call street-smart-scientists who live up-close and personal with their water challenge. I’ll bet they will come up with other solutions to other problems that we might never dream of, because they have new options to change the circumstances they face. They need to conserve water. But we need them for their energy to build a better world for all of us to live in.
This is what we intend when we use the word, “empowerment.” This is what you intend every time you donate your dollars to our work with sidelined, marginalized youth. There is an immediate benefit, drinkable water, and a longer-term outcome, young people prepared to ponder new possibilities and bring them into action. Young people who once were “lost” – to opportunity, to relationship, to hope.
I am totally passionate for putting the last, first! I am sure that a lot more than clean water will come out of this investment in STEM experiences for young people.
But clean water is a really good start, right?
P.S. - Click here to see a video of the girls explaining their incredible project.