The OK Clean Water Project

I have written a few times about my bike ride across Iowa in July, 2004.  However, there’s a little more to that story I wanted to share.

When people heard I was doing the trip, the first question was usually, “Is it a fundraiser?”  As if saying, “Because why else would anyone choose to ride a bike 480 miles across Iowa in the middle of July?”

Well, this oft repeated question got me to thinking – why not make it a fundraiser?  It did not take long to think of the organization to which I would give my funds.

Eight years earlier, I was in the Volunteer Office at my alma mater talking to the Director.  She asked what my Spring Break plans were.  “Nothing really,” I said.  “Just going home.”

“Would you like to go on a service trip?” she asked.  I looked a little puzzled, but interested, so she continued.  “A student just dropped out and we need someone to fill her spot.  You’d be going to Vicksburg, Mississippi with Tina.  You’ll be staying with a sister there, but you’ll have to do some fundraising.”  As a student at a Jesuit university, I embraced the Jesuit ideal of “Men and Women For Others.”  I was an officer of the student service organization and this was right up my alley.  I told her that I was very interested and can’t recall if I ran it by my parents first or committed to it right then and there.

With just six weeks until our departure, Tina and I sat down to hash out our fundraising plans.  Tina was local, and so was the Gertrude Hawk Chocolate company.  We decided to roam the dorms one Thursday night selling candy bars.  We knew what we were doing, of course.  Thursday nights in the mid-nineties were “Must-see TV” nights on NBC.  Most every student was in the dorms  watching new episodes of Friends, Seinfeld, and ER.  Our plan worked.  We did most of our fundraising in a couple Thursdays.

In Mississippi, we worked and stayed with the spunkiest sister I’d ever met.  It wasn’t hard to tell Sr. Cathy was born and bred New York.  The names of all her successful GED graduates adorned the walls of her classroom at the Good Shepherd Community Center.  She didn’t beat around the bush when telling us about the difficulties her students faced.  Nor did she mince words when explaining how the Catholic folks down there said they didn’t really have a need for her, so she went to where she could help – regardless of the religion or lack there of.

While staying with her, we assisted in various parts of the center – day care, the clinic, after-school activities, and the GED program.  It was while standing outside in the play area one day that I a had my most interesting moment.  I was talking to one of the mothers who was just about my age (19).  She was surprised to learn I didn’t yet have children.  I explained that I wanted to finish school first, and then maybe I’d think about it.  She explained that down here, people have kids first and go to college if they can fit it in.  I was stunned.  Really?  The priority was having your own children over getting a college degree?  I know there’s much more to it than that, but as a naive 19 year old, I couldn’t believe the words I’d just heard.  The week we were there the newspaper had an article about trying to integrate the prom at a local high school.  They still had a traditional black prom and a traditional white prom.  I couldn’t believe I was standing in the United States and reading this.

In the evenings, Sr. Cathy showed us her city.  We rode a riverboat on the Mississippi with a captain who declared, “If the South ever rises again, I’ll rise right with it!”  We toured antebellum homes where I learned that “The War Between the States” was the “proper” way to refer to the Civil War.  We saw the lines on the cement walls near the river indicating flood levels.  And it was at Sr. Cathy’s dinner table that I decided eating crawfish was not worth all the effort.

I learned and experienced so much while in Vicksburg that I returned again the following year to work with Sr. Cathy.  We kept in touch and upon my graduation, she encouraged me to attend a yearly retreat offered by the sisters for post-college students.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I pulled up to the weathered three story inn on the Rhode Island Coast.  The sisters bought it in the mid-1950s when no one was buying anything on the hurricane battered coast.  You can see Block Island from the front lawn, and multi-million dollar houses all around.  This is the only piece of property the sisters own.  And, of course, they use it to serve others.  It hosts many retreats throughout the season and also serves as a vacation place for the hard-working sisters.

My fellow retreatants all had their own stories of how they first came into contact with the sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame.  And how they came to become a part of the community of friends of these women.  I forget the theme of that first retreat.  They change the theme every year.  But every year, it was exactly what I needed and to this day it’s where you’ll find me the first weekend in June.

By the time of my bike ride in Iowa, Sr. Cathy had moved on to become a principal of a school in NYC, and then onto Cameroon.  Though I rarely saw her, we kept in touch via e-mail.  And a few years into her stay in Africa, a woman I met on the aforementioned retreat spent four months volunteering with Sr. Cathy in Kumbo, Cameroon.  It was through her blog that I first heard about the OK Clean Water Project.

The sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame waste no time in addressing the needs they see in the world.  They started the retreat I attend every year because women they met while working at colleges lamented about the lack of retreat opportunities available after they graduated.  And when Sr. Cathy saw people walking miles to retrieve water from a polluted stream in Cameroon, collecting it in dirty jugs, she challenged people to respond.  Friends in Ottawa heeded the call, and in 2003 the OK Clean Water Project was born.  (OK standing for Ottawa to Kumbo).

In the Spring of 2004, I sent out letters to family and friends telling them of my bike ride and my desire to do it in order to raise funds for the OK Clean Water Project.  And when people asked if I was doing RAGBRAI as a fundraiser, I said yes and told them about the OK Clean Water Project.  I then asked if they wanted to contribute.  Thanks to everyone’s generosity, I was able to present the organization with $1400.

So thanks to all those who couldn’t see why someone would ride a bike across Iowa unless it was for a good cause.  I assure you, it’s a very good cause:)

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