Marlatt Elementary students giving up recess, television to help people in need in Africa

By Bethany Knipp

Students at Marlatt Elementary School are giving to hundreds of people in Tanzania by making art.

Art teacher Courtney Smith is having her students in kindergarten through sixth grade make paper beads, which are sold in the United States and matched in dollars through an agreement with the Bezos Family Foundation through a nonprofit organization called Students Rebuild to fund 41 water projects to give the African country clean water.

Smith first learned about the “Water Challenge” through a conference she attended in San Diego. She brought the idea to her students as a way for them to help people. The students started the project on April 1 and will send them in a few days before the May 16 deadline.

“[I just wanted] to show my kids that art matters and that people matter and we can be the change and make a difference even though we’re so removed from it,” Smith said. “I think probably the most interesting thing for [the kids] is that they don’t realize how lucky we are sometimes.”

The beads are easy to make. Smith cuts strips of magazine paper or newspaper with a paper cutter into long, thin triangles, then her students wrap the paper strips around toothpicks, pencils or their fingers to shape the beads. The beads are sealed with Mod Podge, a type of glue that hardens and protects them.

Smith said her students became enthusiastic about the project after hearing about how the lives of people in Tanzania were vastly different from their own.

“To show them their water is like dirt. They brush their teeth with this, they wash their bodies with this, they wash their clothes with this, they cook with this. ‘Would that be something you would want to do?’ and they were all just disgusted,” Smith said.

As of Friday, the art students had given 313 people water. Every 20 beads gives one person fresh water, according to the Water Challenge website at That means the art students have made 6,260 beads. The challenge is worldwide and the Students Rebuild organization has reached 60 percent of its goal to provide water for 16,173 people.

“My goal for Marlatt is 429 people,” Smith said. “That’s how many people are enrolled in our school,” she said.

The children have been dedicating their time to helping people in Tanzania, using their recesses to count beads, using other classes to make them when possible and even using their free time.

“When me and my mom were sick, we just made 60 beads in one day … giving three people fresh water, I felt really good about that,” 11-year-old fifth-grader Ruby McClendon said. “It’s kind of like a therapy.”

Maggie Morrill, 11, said she sometimes watches TV as she works on the project, and when her parents ask if she wants to watch a movie, she tells them, “Busy making beads.”

“Just the thought of helping kind of motivates you,” Maggie said. She even took the Harry Styles charms off of her One Direction necklace and replaced them with paper beads. “There just so stylish. They go with everything,” she said.

Smith said she, also, will work on beads at home.

“At night I’ll watch TV and instead of just sitting there, I make beads. Watching TV is not more important than helping somebody get fresh water,” she said.

The beads will also be used by Brazilian artist and photographer Vik Muniz and London-based African jewelry fashion designer Anita Quansah in their own art installations that will be donated or auctioned as a part of the Water Challenge.

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