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Chicago Principal and Her School Collect Bottled Water for Flint


Lisa Epstein left Flint about two decades ago, but when news that the city's drinking water had been contaminated by lead started making national headlines, she knew she had to do something to help her hometown.

Epstein, the principal of Richard Henry Lee Elementary School in Chicago's West Lawn area, launched an effort to collect bottled water for Flint's children and families. In less than a week, Epstein, her staff, and students collected more than 1,000 cases of bottled water, with pledges from others that could boost the final tally to more than 1,500 cases.


She expected people to rise to the challenge, but the outpouring of generosity from community residents whose economic circumstances are similar to those in Flint made her emotional, she said.

"Their willingness to make a difference in the lives of others when they themselves have challenges and struggles" was among the most touching thing she'd ever seen, she said.

"Many of them don't have the money to survive on their own, yet they are willing to give back," she said.

Parents, staff, and students at other schools have also donated, she said.

Epstein and Alexandra Escobar, the school's assistant principal, will make the trip to Flint and set up shop on Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Childrens Dream Center, a homeless shelter in the city's north side. From there, they will hand out the water to children and families. 

A Detroit disaster-recovery company, Interstate Restoration, volunteered to ferry the water to Flint.

The decision to help her hometown was a no-brainer. Though she last lived in the city decades ago and has no immediate family left in Flint, Epstein still feels deeply connected to the struggling town.

Her father and uncle, both deceased, worked as doctors in Flint, and during their careers they delivered, or helped to deliver and care for many parents and grandparents of the children whose lives are affected by this crisis, she said.

"When it comes to children, my belief is that what you do for one you do for all," Epstein said. "The work that I do every day is about children. So whether the child is here in Chicago or elsewhere, a child in need is a child in need." 


Epstein and her teachers believe that learning doesn't only take place in the classroom, and they see this as an opportunity for their students to learn about a real-life problem and take action to make a difference, she said.

"They will be able to see how they have impacted the lives of other children," she said.  "That's really significant."

It is still unclear how many of Flint's children have been affected by the lead-tainted water, and there are various investigations underway to determine who bears responsibility and to figure out the ultimate impact on those affected.  

Epstein knows that what they are doing is a small drop in the bucket of a what is likely to be a years-long, sustained response.  But, she said, every little bit helps, and she will be willing to mount another drive to ensure that Flint's children continue to receive safe drinking water if donations continue to pour in. 

"The crisis isn't going away anytime soon," Epstein said. "It's going to take years to replace the pipes and for families and the community to get fresh water again. I think it's the beginning, and it's just a way to start helping the community."

Above: Students at Richard Henry Lee Elementary School in Chicago helped collect more than 1,000 cases of bottled water for children in Flint, Mich. Courtesy of Lisa Epstein.

Left: Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard Henry Lee Elementary School in Chicago, and Alexandra Escobar, the school's assistant principal, will hand out bottled water to Flint children and families. The school held a water drive to collect bottled water for Flint residents. Courtesy of Lisa Epstein.

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