West Michigan student makes a big impact for Ugandan schools

By June 19, 2017

Uganda (MNN) — This story is a reminder that all you need to make a difference in the world is a willingness to answer God’s call. In 2016, Riley Street Middle School in West Michigan partnered with the Ugandan Water Project to raise money towards water catchment systems for schools in Uganda. The Ugandan schools are run by Set Free Ministries.

(Photo courtesy of Set Free Ministries)

That year, the entire middle school more than tripled their fundraiser goal, which enabled them to fund the installation of three catchment systems instead of one.

For students in Uganda, clean water can be the difference between being healthy enough to attend school or not. Sometimes, it can be a difference of life and death.

Set Free’s Pete Noor says, “That’s something, I think, in the United States we don’t understand is how many diseases start from bad drinking water. It’s a lot. So, putting these catchment systems up, it does a lot of things. It [saves] time [for] the kids having to get water because lots of times they have to travel well over a mile each way to the nearest water source.”

And often, these water sources are dirty. Some of the children retrieving the water are so thirsty, they don’t wait until they’re home to boil the water before taking a drink.

As we shared previously, teacher JoAnn Smit spends much of the school year teaching her classes about water inequality around the world. Her students end the year well aware of the lack of clean drinking water people face. That’s why the Ugandan Water Project was such a big deal to them.

A birthday sacrifice

When the school first started this project, it struck a chord with sixth-grader Autumn Tyson. She says, “The first time I had heard about this project was in sixth grade, and I thought, that’s really cool that people here are doing that.”

Autumn Tyson (Photo courtesy of Set Free Ministries)

And so when the school began the fundraiser for the second time, she decided to do something big.

Every year, Tyson has a family birthday party, and as is typical, she receives many gifts from family. But she told her grandma that this year, she would rather have them donate to the Ugandan Water Project.

“I think I’ve always kind of wanted to do something like this, but I didn’t really know how to tell my family at first. So, I figured I should do it now since I know what organization I would donate it to,” Tyson says.

This simple sacrifice in her life led to a total of $580 raised for the fundraiser, a huge contribution to their overall goal. This experience has taught Autumn at a very young age that she really can make a difference, and it seems likely that she won’t stop here.

“I just feel really great that I donated something and made that big of a difference. For future times, I’d probably do it again. And it just makes me feel really great that I could do something like this.”

A legacy of clean water

Smit says that through two rounds of fundraising, the school has raised $22,000.

(Photo courtesy of Set Free Ministries)

“We as a school have now put in six water tank systems in schools in Uganda and really have helped over, last I heard, around 1,200 to 1,500 students and their families. So, you know, to a tiny little middle school in Hudsonville, Michigan, kids can do an amazing thing,” she explains.

She continues to say, “If I were to encourage anybody, it doesn’t matter how old you are, how young you are, anybody can make a difference.”

As the Ugandan Water Project partners with Set Free Ministries and their schools in Uganda, the door to education opens. But more importantly, these kids get to learn about Jesus each and every day.

Smit says she hopes that this work will not end here.

(Photo courtesy of Set Free Ministries)

“It is my goal as an instructor here to have this become a legacy. And we talk a lot about that in class, about what that means — leaving something behind.”

This, she says, is a profound lesson for kids who, in the blink of an eye, are through the middle school years.
In Tyson, the project has instilled a valuable lesson on what it means to care deeply for people in need.

Tyson says, “It’s a really important thing to me that they have clean water now because I use water every single day and I honestly can’t begin to think of how it would be, so I was really happy to help them out with that.”

She hopes that her story might inspire some of you.

Smit says, “I just want to say that Autumn is a remarkable young lady and we’re really proud that she’s a student here.”

To support the work of Set Free Ministries, get connected with them here.


  • This is wonderful and I thank Autumn Tyson and all the other students and of course the teachers, for all the fundraising and then my thanks go to all who are actively involved in installing water tanks, etc. I live in Uganda and am well aware of all the disease and death there is here, resulting from unclean water. I cannot support you with donations, but I give thanks for you all and for Set Free Ministries and this amazing work. I will pray for you all regularly.

  • Autumn Tyson says:

    Thank you Trish Spedding, and I am so thankful and so glad that I did this. It brought me so much joy to know I did something that impacted so many people, and I encourage people to do what as I did. when I decided to do do this, I had no idea all this would happen, I am so blessed and I thank god for every day I live on this beautiful planet.

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