My WASH team and I believe that a school is the heart of the community. It’s a place where children spend half of their day, and investment in a healthy school is an investment in healthy children.
20 years ago, I was a primary school student in the village of Na Sangveuy, Laos. I loved studying, but I also couldn’t wait to hear the sound of the school bell. As soon as the bell rang for recess, my friends and I would run to the school yard. We usually played games like marbles or jumping rope and when the bell rang again for class, I would be sweaty and tired. What I needed most was water.
There was water at the teachers’ office, but it was only for teachers. To get water, my friends and I would walk to the tap closest to our school. Our teachers would tell us that the tap water was not safe to drink, but we were thirsty and had limited choices for water so, we drank it anyway.
If we weren’t getting water from the tap near our school, my friends and I would take our classmates’ water. Only a few of our classmates were able to bring water from home, so if someone brought water to school, it was often taken by others. Sometimes I would even go home early to get water before the school day ended. When I was thirsty, I had a difficult time concentrating on my studying so I was always looking for water to drink.
20 years have passed since I was in primary school, but the problems I faced are still holding many children back today, especially children living in remote areas.
When I first started working for PoP, I held handwashing and tooth brushing activities with many students at different schools. The first time I did WASH activities with students, I saw that students felt very shy to participate. I also saw that the water they used to wash their hands was brown and the foam of the tooth paste in their mouths was turning red from their gums bleeding. This meant that they were not doing the WASH activities often.
After providing these schools with several years of our WASH programming, I am now seeing students respond differently. They feel confident and know how to properly wash their hands and brush their teeth. They have enough clean water to drink and can access the bathroom at school. They have formed healthy WASH habits over time and have had the opportunity to join WASH activities at school as a daily routine.
A mother of a third grade student at Long Lan school told me, “Every weekday, my son, Sou Lee, is very excited to go to school. He asks me to prepare his school uniform for him so he can go to school. He said at school they conduct hygiene activities and he does not want to miss it. He loves to join the activity with his friends. I sometimes say a joke to him ‘Don’t rush today. They have no activity at school,’ but he does not believe me. He says the teacher tells them the activity will be conducted every weekday. After class in the morning he comes home for lunch quickly and rushes to go back to school. I am now very happy to see my child loves going to school more often. He looks nicer and healthier compared to before Pencils of Promise was supporting our school and our teachers.”
Our Laos WASH team is currently supporting 41 schools, 123 teachers and 5,925 students this year with three main goals:
- Access: Providing all students with bathrooms, handwashing stations and tooth brushing facilities, as well as access to safe and clean drinking water while they’re at school
- Knowledge: Instructing students on the importance of WASH
- Behavior: Encouraging students to use bathrooms, drink clean water, wash their hands and brush their teeth to create positive, life-long habits
We believe that healthy schools are sustained by the community, so we make sure that the community understands and is willing to invest in the programming before we start. PoP provides WASH materials and workshops for teachers, students and the community during the first year of the program. We also work closely with the Lao government so that, after that first year, the community and school teachers will continue to collaborate to support the children. We do this to ensure that the social norms and habits developed through our program stay with them throughout their lives.
My WASH team and I are excited and willing to extend our WASH program to other high-need schools. We will continue empowering teachers and communities to take action and, critically, take ownership of investing in healthy schools. We will make sure the school environment can enable the development of healthy behaviors among children who may not have the same opportunities in their home so that the children of today can become the leaders of the future!