August 3, 2018

Born out of crisis: Flint is training its teens to be water testers

Here are three stories on how local innovation can make a difference in everyday lives

Teens in Flint are becoming the new "water warriors" through a program that trains them to gather water samples for testing. Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Each week, The Renewal Project shares three stories from around the country that highlight the innovative solutions individuals and organizations are creating in their communities. Today, how Flint is training teens to be water warriors, why LeBron James is passionate about helping his hometown, and what a budding social entrepreneur is doing to grow her business. Tell us who’s innovating in your hometown. Email us at

Flint’s fresh water crew: Young people in Flint, Michigan, have a new opportunity to be change-makers in their community. A recently launched program in the city, which is rebuilding after dangerous levels of lead in the water caused a public health crisis in 2015, allows teens to become volunteer water testers. The youth water testing program, a partnership of Freshwater Future, the Flint Development Center, and other local organizations, trains 16-to-18 year olds to collect water samples properly from residential and commercial buildings, and send them for testing at the University of Michigan Biological Station.

The program is also teaching kids to be future community leaders. Aside from learning about water quality and the science behind the testing, participants practice soft skills like communicating with adults. And with support from the Hispanic Latino Collaborative they are gaining cultural awareness of how water issues impact Flint’s Latino and Hispanic population.

Michael Harris of the Flint Development Center said the program is helping Flint rise above the lead crisis to become water experts of the world. Flint’s teens can be a model for this success story. “These young people will be the future water warriors,” he said.

King James Elementary: LeBron James may have left his Cleveland team, but he hasn’t forgot his Ohio roots. As a fourth grader growing up in Akron, the future NBA superstar was not headed for a bright future. Raised by a single mom who struggled to find steady employment, the young James skipped 80 days of class, he recently told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. But it was around this time that he also found support from coaches and mentors who provided a foundation for him to achieve dreams he never thought possible.

James, now 33, is providing that same support to kids in Akron that need help reaching their dreams. This week, he opened the I Promise School, a public school created through the LeBron James Family Foundation in partnership with Akron Public Schools. The school welcomed its inaugural class of 240 third- and fourth-graders. In four years it is expected to serve kids in first through eighth grades.

The school’s focus is helping at-risk students and families affected by the toxic stress of poverty and instability that can undermine learning. Tuition is free for everyone, and students are provided with uniforms, bicycles and helmets, a Chromebook, and access to a food pantry. The school will also provide GED training and job placement services for parents.

“I think this is the greatest accomplishment for me because it’s not just me,” James told the Associated Press. “This is for generation after generation after generation and it’s for these kids, so it means everything.”

College student tackles hunger: American University undergraduate Maria Rose Belding has been working to solve food insecurity since she was 14. Growing up in rural Iowa, she volunteered at a local food bank and saw firsthand the challenges of getting food to people in need. As a middle schooler, she researched the issue and developed an online database that helps to connect grocery stores and restaurants that have excess food with organizations like soup kitchens and food banks that feed families in need.

Her creation, called MEANS (Matching Excess and Need for Stability Database), launched in 2015 and today works in 49 states and Puerto Rico. Belding is now part of the American University Center for Innovation, which trains and mentors budding entrepreneurs at the university, where she is pursuing a bachelor of science in public health. The center also provides space for students to explore ideas that are changing the world. “The beauty of a tech company,” Maria told BusinessBecause, “is that you don’t have to put boots on the ground to be effective!”

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.
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