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In Flint and beyond, people come together to address city's water crisis

Path to progress

As the crisis has unfolded in Flint, Mich., residents have taken action, and religious groups from as far away as Tennessee are stepping up to help.

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    (l. to r.) Residents Marcus Shelton, Roland Young, and Darius Martin walk on an ice-covered street as they retrieve free water on Sunday at Heavenly Host Full Gospel Baptist Church in Flint, Mich. Flint's water became contaminated after Flint switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River as a cost-cutting move.
    Jake May/The Flint Journal – MLive.com/AP
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In recent days the water crisis in Flint, Mich., has seized national attention, with President Obama on Saturday declaring a federal emergency and Democratic candidates on Sunday criticizing Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for his handling of the disaster.

But even as the crisis unfolds, Flint residents and community leaders have banded together to provide for and support one another. And beyond Flint, clergy and others from as far away as Tennessee have stepped forward to collect donations, distribute filters and bottled water, and otherwise offer assistance.

“There were many individuals and other groups that rallied around the issue right away,” says Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has worked with groups in Flint since the crisis began. “They organized rallies and submitted petitions, long before national media was paying attention to this crisis.”

The problems began in 2014, when city officials – in an effort to cut costs in cash-strapped Flint – switched from buying water from Detroit to pumping the supply out of the Flint River. The following months saw a spate of rashes and other medical issues arise among Flint residents, particularly children.

Last fall, tests of the city’s water supply revealed amounts of lead well above the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended levels. Michigan officials declared a state of emergency in October, and in late December – after months of maintaining that Flint’s water was safe – Governor Snyder issued an apology.

Facing criticism and calls for his resignation, Snyder, a Republican, asked for federal aid money to help clear the city’s water supply. He has also mobilized the National Guard to help dispense filters and water bottles to residents.

But even before Flint’s water issues gained national attention – indeed, almost as soon as the water supply switch took place – residents and community groups had come together to protest the issue and come up with ways of addressing it.

The tests that confirmed the levels of lead in the city’s water came about because a concerned resident had sent samples to a professor at Virginia Tech, points out Ms. Chaudhary. More than 250 others later volunteered water from their homes as samples for further experimentation.

“It’s very difficult to collect that many samples. But this community was so organized and so confident about their understanding of the danger that this water posed that they were able to go out and do that,” Chaudhary says.

“What’s happened in Flint demonstrates the value of an engaged and vigilant community looking out for themselves and each other,” she adds.

Those groups and others are continuing to collaborate to hold the state and city accountable, as well as to help residents, especially those in low-income areas.

The crisis has spurred others into action, too. Harry Hampton, who owns and runs a transportation business in Ypsilanti, Mich., has spent the nine years since his last drug-related conviction trying to turn his life around. On Friday, after hearing about the situation in Flint, he and a group of friends – most with criminal histories – rented a truck and filled it with $500 worth of bottled water.

The next day, they parked it outside a local Wal-Mart and invited people to donate to the cause. “I took a lot, and it’s time to give back,” Mr. Hampton told MLive.com.

The group collected 800 bottles that day, which they delivered to shelters and neighborhoods in Flint.

“I believe that’s a beautiful thing to show the community and the world that just because you have a criminal history doesn’t take away from the fact that you’re still a human being,” said Husain Carter, a case manager at one of the shelters, to MLive.com. “And imagine that – ex-convicts are willing to help quicker than the government.”

Also important to the aid efforts in Flint are church and community leaders from around the country. Over the weekend, churches from Chattanooga and Nashville, Tenn., collected water donations that they sent to partner parishes in Flint. A group of churches in Wisconsin have also pledged to collect offerings earmarked for bottled water purchases. As of Thursday, the group had delivered 72,000 containers of water to Flint, according to CBS.

“Flint is a great city and has recently come into very difficult times,” Keith Evans, a pastor with the Greater Mt. Eagle Baptist Church in Racine, Wis., told the local CBS affiliate. “We have to help, and those of us who have a heart for people, and especially people like myself who have a heart for the city, we want to step up and do as much as we can to help people there who are hurting.”

Within Michigan, a partnership between the Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint and the Michigan State University Extension seeks to provide Flint families with information about foods and vitamins that best block lead.

Others have leveraged social media and the Internet to push their efforts. The Lansing Water Drive for Flint, a Facebook page started by two women, has brought together 18 businesses in the Lansing, Mich., area to coordinate pickups and drop-offs of water bottle donations, the Lansing State Journal reports. And the Catholic Diocese of Lansing’s Faith in Flint website has been central to organizing efforts among Catholic churches and organizations.

“People want to do good things,” diocese spokesman Michael Diebold told the Journal. “And sometimes I think it just takes pointing them in the right direction. That’s the phenomenon we see happening right now.”

With the challenge far from over, community efforts within Flint and beyond will be invaluable as the city continues to find ways to overcome its ordeal, Chaudhary of the NRDC says.

“The water’s still not safe to drink, and no one knows when [residents] will be able to drink their water and how the city intends to provide safe water for its residents,” she says. But “the community in Flint has created an infrastructure to help each other as this crisis evolves and persists.”

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