How H2O for Life Tackles the Global Water Crisis

by | Mar 2024

Rippling waves on a lake.

Photo: Sarah Dovolos

At H2O for Life, taking on the global water crisis means empowering students to become changemakers.

For students in White Bear Lake, the opportunity to make a life-changing impact on a global scale isn’t a pipe dream—it’s a reality that many of them have participated in more than once, thanks to one locally based nonprofit.

Founded in 2007 by White Bear Lake resident Patty Hall, H2O for Life offers service-learning opportunities for students to make a difference in the global water crisis. Youth around the country take action by spreading awareness and raising money to support water, sanitation and hygiene projects for global partner schools. What sounds like a major undertaking is right-sized for classrooms of all different ages and subjects, pairing education with social good and expanding students’ worldviews.

Patty Hall

Patty Hall

Hall considers herself an “accidental nonprofit founder.” At the time, she was teaching at Highview Middle School in Mounds View and heard about a small village in Kenya that was desperate for an operational clean water system. She took on the project and, with the enthusiastic help and hard work of her school community, donated $13,000 to Kathungu Village.

Hall was inspired by her school’s commitment to this project and interest in continuing to take on the global water crisis. After she visited that first project and saw its impact on the community, she returned and showed everyone what they’d made possible. Hall says that, after seeing that project in action, “Children understood they could really change the world.”

Since the original project, students and school communities across Minnesota—and the world—have continued using H2O for Life as a jumping-off point for changemaking. At schools close to home, students also learn about the importance of protecting and conserving our local clean water.

It’s the service-learning aspect of the organization that is to be thanked for its flexibility and staying power. “The key with our projects is that it gives young people hope, taking their local effort and having a gigantic impact on the lives of people they’ll probably never see,” says Doug Niemela, H2O for Life executive director and White Bear Lake Area High School (WBLAHS) graduate.

Doug Niemela

Doug Niemela

Students who have participated in H2O for Life projects over the years remember these lessons far beyond raising the right amount of money and seeing the project to completion. WBLAHS junior Callie Donoghue, who engaged with H2O for Life projects as an elementary student at Matoska International, says, “Starting to teach children at the elementary school age how important it is to be knowledgeable of your environmental impact on your community and world … I think [it] really makes a difference in how they will view these issues throughout their lives.”

Empowering Educators

H2O for Life is not just about fundraising, though ultimately it is dollars raised that translates to completed water projects. It all starts with teachers. H2O for Life started from a place of education and works best when teachers weave it into curriculum. H2O for Life offers a wide range of free materials for teachers to implement for students of all ages, from kindergarten through high school. There are reading guides, videos and full curricula for teachers to choose from, creating an a la carte system of resources that fits into all sorts of subjects and involvement levels.

There’s also an implementation option for educators who work in less well-resourced schools. A $500 mini grant program provides opportunities to educators to engage their students in learning about the global water crisis in whatever way they see fit. Monthly programming on Saturdays is also offered for high school students to hear from people who have real life experience advocating for clean water.

Because of H2O for Life’s local roots, there are teachers in the White Bear Lake area who have been doing these projects for a number of years. One of these teachers is Mark Domschot. Named White Bear Lake Area Educators 2023 Teacher of the Year, Domschot is a teacher at WBLAHS with a passion for developing empathy alongside his students. He wants to get away from feeling pity for the communities and kids who benefit from the students’ efforts. Instead, he hopes his students learn from the kids, who are just like them: smart, creative and fun. “I love watching our students learn from them and realizing that both sides, both schools, are learning from each other,” Domschot says.

High school junior Libby Butters is one of Domschot’s past students. “The thing I enjoyed most about working on our project has to be the build-up and excitement that grew within the whole school as we all worked together to reach our goal,” she says.

While students anywhere from Nicaragua to Uganda are getting the life-changing experience of clean, accessible water, students in the White Bear Lake area are becoming changemakers.

“When people come back and say the impact it’s had on their careers and futures, it shows that service learning really has a place in education,” Hall says.

Otter Lake Elementary Walk for Water

Otter Lake Elementary Walk for Water

By The Numbers

850 thousand students at H2O for Life schools have supported global water projects for schools in the developing world.

1,200 water, sanitation and hygiene education projects have been completed.

550 thousand international students now have access to water at school thanks to H2O for Life efforts.

2,000 schools around the U.S. and Canada have participated with H2O for Life.

$4 million has been raised by students for H20 for Life projects.

H2O for Life
4756 Banning Ave. Suite #207, White Bear Lake; 651.756.7577
Facebook: H2O for Life
Instagram: @h2oforlife
X: @h2oschools


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