December 5, 2017, Adrian, Michigan – More than 1,000 days after the beginning of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan – dubbed by some as the poorest city in the United States – Sister Carol Weber, OP, gave an update on the crisis and on the work of St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center on Flint’s North Side.
The presentation to Adrian Dominican Sisters and Associates took place December 4 in the Rose Room of the Dominican Life Center in Adrian. It was sponsored by the Congregation’s Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation.
“We go to the water faucet, turn it on, and brush our teeth and don’t think anything of it,” Sister Carol said. But the people in Flint are not so lucky. Recalling a visit to another nation where she needed to use bottled water to brush her teeth, Sister Carol said, “Now I live in a city in the United States of America where we [also] need to use bottled water.”
The crisis began when, as a cost-saving measure, government officials decided to use the Flint River as the source of the city’s water. The corrosive water damaged the lining of lead pipes, allowing lead and other materials into water used by Flint families. The pipes now are being replaced. “We hope that by the end of the season they’ll have 6,000 replaced,” Sister Carol said, adding that estimates are the project won’t be completed for another five to six years.
From the beginning of the crisis, the N.E.W. Life Center has been a support to the people of Flint. “When the news first broke, we got semi-loads of water,” Sister Carol said. “It came from all across the country.” The Center had to dedicate a room to store the water, she added. Now, the bottled water is formally distributed from four centers in Flint, but N.E.W. Life Center still gives out bottled water with the food it provides.
Even today, many people in Flint still rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and brushing their teeth. Sister Carol and two staff members of N.E.W. Life Center spoke of the daily difficulty that Flint residents face in carrying large, 24-bottle cases of water on the city bus and relying on that water for daily chores. “That’s been going on for three years,” Sister Carol noted.
“The water crisis affects the children the most,” Sister Carol said. N.E.W. Life Center added a program to teach parents and grandparents of young children about nutrition, and offered food that would help children to fight off the effects of the lead poisoning. “Once the lead gets into your system, it tries to go directly to your bones,” Sister Carol explained. “Food like green, leafy vegetables is the most important thing to eat to counteract that. We dedicate ourselves to providing this for the people we serve.”
With all the material needs that Flint residents face, Sister Carol said their greatest need is hope and trust. “To build the trust level back in our city will take a long time, but we believe we can build trust one person at a time.”
Sister Carol, Sister Judy Blake, CSJ, Co-Founder and Co-director of the N.E.W. Life Center, and the staff have been building up the trust in Flint since the Center was established in 2002.
Through the Center’s sewing social enterprise, women learn to become seamstresses and work in the Center’s own business, which originally manufactured medical scrubs and hospital gowns. Now, the enterprise is involved in other projects, such as making teddy bears for first responders to pass out to children, and producing filters for air conditioning and heating units.
The Center also has an employment-training program for the men. After a 16-week training program, the Center hires graduates temporarily to ensure that they have learned a good work ethic, and then helps them to find jobs. Many of the graduates endure a nearly hour-long commute to work in Brighton, Michigan, “but the men and women we have sent there are so grateful to have a job that they don’t mind the travel time,” Sister Carol said.
Other programs include a literacy center, which offers one-on-one tutoring and GED preparation; a food pantry; and a hot meal served three days a week, serving 3,000 people; Christmas gifts to about 580 children ages 10 and younger; and Christmas gifts of personal items to the people who participate in the feeding program.
Sister Carol noted that the Center has received monetary and volunteer support from the Congregation and from the greater community. She thanked the Sisters for their prayers and support. “I know that prayer carries us, and I know that where one of us [Adrian Dominican Sisters] is, we’re all there,” Sister Carol said. “So thank you for being there with me for Flint.”
Feature photo: Volunteers help with food and water for St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center’s food program.