Iraqi students hold up a sign thanking St. Catherine students for their help in obtaining clean drinking water for their school. Through the Waters for Peace project, St. Catherine students raised money and awareness about the need for clean water in Iraq. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, only 30 percent of children in Iraq have access to safe drinking water. (Submitted photos courtesy St. Catherine High School)

RACINE — “For I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink….”

Students from St. Catherine High School in Racine are living Matthew’s Gospel by providing fresh drinking water to students at a high school in Najaf, Iraq.

During a preaching conference in summer 2008 at the Siena Center in Racine, campus minister Beth Roeder and three St. Catherine students learned about social justice and what it means to be a Dominican.

According to principal Deacon Andy Meuler, attending the preaching service with other Dominican high schools is identified as one of the pillars of their faith community.

“The preaching they are referring to is one of action, not just words,” he said.

The three students – now seniors – who attended the conference, Phillip Roeder, Rob Hamiester and Stephanie Nistler, felt it important to pick a social justice issue that was a basic need that most people take for granted. They chose water.

After learning about the devastation and poor quality of living in Iraq at the conference, students, under the direction of Roeder, formed a committee with the Racine Dominican Sisters and initiated the Waters for Peace project.

“The students studied the issue, learning the truth of Iraqi’s water issues and decided it was a worthwhile social justice issue to inform the student body about,” said Roeder.

According to Deacon Meuler, students identified two primary reasons for getting involved in the project. For many, such as Emily Ackerman, a senior at St. Catherine, it made a connection to those serving in the military in Iraq.

“It was good for students to give to a country whose image is not portrayed in a good light,” she said.

“And it was helping students in Iraq return to school by providing a source of clean water,” Deacon Meuler said. “The students felt these were both valuable reasons to get involved.”

Because of the number of other projects in which the students participate, Deacon Meuler noted that the staff is proud of the students’ work and dedication to helping others. He credits their compassion with an education rooted in the Dominican tradition.

The school prayed over their idea.

“After studying the issue and finding the truth, the students decided to present it in a prayer service,” said Roeder. “They then raised $800 through STEP competition. Mr. Trenier, a teacher at St. Catherine, built them a wooden well for their collection that added a unique visual to help promote the cause.”

The province of Najaf, with a population of 1.2 million, is located 100 miles south of Baghdad. Approximately 500 schools and more than 20 hospitals and clinics in the province are in need of clean water. The primary water supply in Najaf is gradually being restored, but most of it is contaminated with bacteria from sewage. It is unsafe for drinking.

Through the Muslim Peacemaker Teams, water purification systems of varying sizes are available for $250, $500 and $1,000 that provide 189, 750, or 1,500 liters of fresh water per day. The smallest filtration system can supply clean water for a school of 100 students, while the largest system could supply a 200-bed hospital with adequate clean water.

St. Catherine students hope to make a difference in providing clean water throughout the world.

“They want to write letters to the Iraq school and continue to learn of ways they can promote cultural awareness toward peace between nations through water efforts,” Roeder said. “Students know that as Dominicans they need to be a blessing through their moral character and feel that any time they minister to others they are laying a foundation strong in faith.

“This project has opened their awareness to how they view other cultures, differences of interpretation of media views and truth. They have been challenged to not take everyday necessities for granted.”