Penny Wars winner is clean drinking water

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

It was Abe versus George versus thirst, and the seventh graders won. 

The Kingsland High School Key Club held Penny Wars during the second week of February, raising nearly $1,000 with donations of not only Abraham Lincoln’s likeness on pennies, but also that of George Washington on quarters as all types of change was accepted for the campaign to benefit the Thirst Project to provide clean water to people who don’t have it.

The seventh grade class raised $324.02, for which it earned a reward of candy on Valentine’s Day. In total, the school’s students brought in an astounding $922.48 in change, according to Key Club advisor Aaron Thauwald.

The Thirst Project was one of the chosen charities to focus on this year for the Minnesota-Dakotas (MNDak) district. Kiwanis sponsors Key Club, a youth service organization. The Key Club board went to the MNDak fall rally at the Mall of America in October, and that’s when the group learned about the Thirst Project. 

Thirst Project officials state that $25 is the cost to provide fresh water to one person for life.

Thirst Project CEO Seth Maxwell said the quest began in 2008 by seven 19-year-old friends living in Southern California who would learn about the global water crisis through a series of unlikely people and events, and embark on a journey.

Maxwell, who was one of those 19-year-olds wrote that the project originated over coffee and that “until this moment in my 19th year, I had no idea that this was even an issue…I had no idea that there were people living in our world who didn’t have access to basic, safe drinking water.  I learned that there were people who are literally forced to drink from swamps, mud puddles, earth dams or whatever standing water source is available to them.  I learned that waterborne diseases kill more children in the world than anything.  I learned that, then, 1.1 billion people didn’t have access to safe, clean drinking water.  My entire worldview was shattered.” 

He attended the screening of a movie in Los Angeles that dealt with the realities of extreme poverty and genocide in developing countries. The next day at church, the pastor talked about missions initiatives, and specifically focused on the needs of safe, clean water in the world. 

“Over the next several months, through my own research and several uncanny, seemingly chance encounters that could only be described as God at work, I met with some of the most prominent individuals and organizations exploring ways to provide solutions to this problem, and I knew I had to take action,” he wrote. 

So, he gathered seven of his closest college friends together and they decided to simply tell these peoples’ story.  They pooled all of their money together, which Maxwell noted, literally amounted to $70, and were able to purchase 1,000 bottles of water from the nearest grocery store. They took them to Hollywood Boulevard and began giving away free bottles of water so that they could get people to stop to ask them why they were doing this. In one day, they spoke to over 1,000 people and almost everybody gave back for the water they took, allowing them to turn $70 into $1,700, which was used to fund their first rehabilitation of a freshwater well.

Maxwell and his friends were then asked to speak to students and educate them on how they could get involved. In their first month, the school speaking events raised over $12,000. They then realized that, despite the huge number of water organizations and agencies that exist to address the global water crisis, nobody was activating young people around this issue. 

“Thirst Project was born out of a bunch of 20-somethings using the only thing we had – the only thing we knew how to do – to simply tell the story of people without safe water.  Today, seven years later, we travel the country to middle schools, high schools and college campuses speaking to people our age to educate students about the global water crisis and challenge them to take action to end it.” 

When they leave, students are equipped to do their own fundraisers and make a real impact on the issue.  In just seven years, the project has raised over $8 million and funded projects to provide over 280,000 people with safe, clean water. The goal with Thirst Project is to provide safe, clean water and sanitation by 2022 to the entire Kingdom of Eswatini, also known as Swaziland in southern Africa.        

The Thirst Project’s website notes that every 21 seconds, a child dies of a water-related disease.  A five-gallon jerrycan with water weighs 44 pounds yet the task of collecting water falls on women and children between the ages of 8 and 13.  As a result, women are often unable to get jobs or contribute financially to households.  Children are often unable to go to school or get an education due to the thousands of hours they have to spend annually just hauling water. The average distance that someone in a developing community walks to fetch water is 3.75 miles.

Safe water can reduce water-related deaths by up to 21 percent, the website states. Every time Thirst Project builds a well, it makes sure that each community it builds in has pit latrines for proper sanitation and safe waste disposal to eliminate open defecation practices, which can reduce water-related deaths by up to 37.5 percent. Also, every community it works in gets trained on proper hand-washing techniques to stop the spread of waterborne diseases. The group’s hygiene workers’ teachings can reduce water-related deaths by up to 35 percent.

For Thauwald and Kingsland’s students, it’s a sweet thing to know that they did their best to make a difference on a global level, as ultimately, their $922.48 will provide water for 36.88 people. 

“The competition was great and most of the kids participated,” Thauwald said. “We learned that only contributing a little bit can go a long way when everyone helps out.  It is very easy to forget that there are people in this world that don’t have much when we are so blessed here and have so much.  It was a great success, and we will do another Penny War next year.”    

For more information, log onto the Thirst Project’s website at