A well in Malawi funded by Girls Reaching Out, a group of teenagers in Sheboygan County that raise funds for the wells. (Submitted photo)

Six high school girls from Kohler spend their free time helping change the lives of girls on the other side of the world. They’re raising money to dig wells in Africa. So far, they’ve raised more than $100,000.

According to Grace Villwock, a sophomore at Kohler High School, “There are a lot of diseases there. Cholera, hepatitis A and diarrhea are all very common, and all due to a lack of clean water.”

Her classmate, Finley Bouck, said that for many families, when clean water is available, it often must be transported on foot from far away. “It’s really hard, especially for girls, to get an education because usually they’re the ones walking eight miles to get water for their entire family. They don’t have time to go to school because water is more important.”

In 2013, a group of middle school girls, including Bridget Bullard, decided to try to help. According to Bridget’s mother, Shannon Bullard, while the girls were working on their Girl Scout Silver Award, “They went to the school library and were looking up different things. They unanimously agreed they wanted to raise money for water in Africa.” After completing their Silver Award project, the girls decided to keep going, and they formed their own organization, called Girls Reaching Out.

In order to have the biggest impact, the GRO members decided to build wells at schools. That would allow the girls in Africa to collect water for their families, and also to attend school.

The girls organized numerous GRO fundraisers, including Christmas caroling, a booth at a craft fair and a Lenten offering at St. John Evangelist in Kohler, the Bullards’ parish.

So far this year, GRO has raised money for four new wells, according to member Melanie Pellegrino. Since the group’s start, they have funded 23 wells.

“A single well costs $7,500,” said GRO member Abbey Janssen. “Part of that cost goes toward the maintenance and upkeep of the well throughout the years, if it ever breaks down.”

When the original GRO members reached high school, they were asked a challenging question: How would they ensure that GRO continued after they left for college?

“They decided in their senior year that, rather than raising money for wells, they’d work on developing a group of girls so GRO would continue,” Bullard said. That’s how Bridget’s younger sister Charlotte, and five of her classmates, got started in GRO. They are currently sophomores at Kohler High School.

Through a partnership with Lakeland University, GRO members met students from the Republic of Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa that became the focus of their philanthropy. One of those students, Patrick Tembwe, is now back in Malawi, and helps them identify potential well sites, and oversees construction and maintenance of the wells.

The girls’ most recent fundraiser was their most successful. GRO was chosen as the recipient of funds raised at the Rotary Club of Sheboygan’s International Small Plates fundraising event in February. The event set a new record, raising more than $30,000, which went to GRO.

“We always called it a God thing,” said Shannon Bullard, who serves as an adult advisor to GRO. “Things just happened so naturally. When they were in sixth grade, I said, ‘Let’s research how much it costs to build a well.’ I thought they would want to do something else, but they said, ‘Let’s do that!’ In the first years, they raised about $500. Then things kept falling into place.”

Bullard said that the girls came up with the organization’s name, GRO, and made their own T-shirts. One of the girls was a server at church. Her priest asked about the T-shirt. That led to the girls speaking at four Masses, and to GRO being the focus of collections at Lent that year.

“For us, we get up in the morning, we probably take a sip of water, we brush our teeth. And we don’t even think about how much money our families are paying. Over there, they have to worry about just being able to get that water.” said GRO member Sophia Kwacz.

“We use water so many times a day and don’t even think about it. You look in Malawi and these girls are lucky if once a week they get clean water,” said Melanie Pellegrino. “It’s heartwarming to see they can live a semi-normal life.”

“Especially knowing it’s girls like us, our same age, just trying to get an education,” added Villwock.

Looking to the future, the girls hope to visit Malawi after graduation, to see the impact of what they’ve accomplished. In the meantime, they hope to find organizations that will match donations, and they’re looking for opportunities to speak to businesses, organizations and churches, to help them spread their mission.

“Once people hear just a little bit about what’s happening in the Third World or anywhere less fortunate, it makes them want to take action,” said Villwock, “which is kind of what we tried to do.”

For more information about GRO, see its website: girlsreachingout.wixsite.com/growithus.