In the past six years, West Islip High School students and faculty have raised over $116,000 to build drinking wells in countries with limited access to fresh water.

Paola Nilsen, a West Islip High School Italian teacher since 1993, introduced the effort to her school in 2012 after she stumbled upon an organization called the Thirst Project.

The Thirst Project is a not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to ending the world’s freshwater crisis. It was founded by a 19-year-old named Seth Maxwell in 2008.

Nilsen learned about Maxwell’s efforts while casually scrolling through her Twitter feed one day.

One tweet that caught her eye was from actress Pauley Perrette of NCIS, who was showing support for the organization, of which she sits on the board.

Nilsen read about the efforts and then wrote to Maxwell to learn more.

“I wanted to know how much of the money would go toward building wells and how much would go to overhead,” she said. “He said 100 percent of what students give go to the well project…so I was like, “Sign me up!”

From there, she gauged her student’s interest. They were into it.

From March to June of 2012 — with the help of about 10 students — they raised about $5,600, which was enough to fund the school’s first drinking well in Uganda.

The Thirst Project then made this short, touching video about the well:

picking up steam

To Nilsen’s surprise, the effort became more and more popular among the students.

Today, West Islip is home to a recognized chapter of the Thirst Project.

“When we started this, we didn’t expect it to go past June of 2012,” she said. “Now I have hundreds of kids I have written letters of recommendations for.”

Currently, with 125 members, Nilsen says the students handle the bulk of the day-to-day operations.

“They run the meetings, they write the agenda, they contact people via email,” she said.

Each school year the group appoints two co-presidents — both seniors — with duties that include underclassmen recruitment and the organization of new fundraising events.

This year, Nilsen’s son Ian — who has been involved since 8th grade — is a co-president with Cayla Romano.

Since 2014, Ian has put in over 800 hours of community service with the Thirst Project, which he says has been an “eye-opening experience” for him.

“Personally, I am much more humble than I used to be,” he said.

After high school, he plans to join the Thirst Project’s Road Warriors group. The members travel across the U.S. to teach students about people in countries stricken by a lack of fresh water.

So far, the West Islip chapter has funded the building of seven drinking wells across the globe.

how it works

Aside from the West Islip-sponsored well in Uganda, there’s another in El Salvador, and five in a small African country called Swaziland, which is about a three-hour drive from the continent’s southeastern seaboard (map below).

Swaziland has become a country of extra emphasis because of its high mortality rates from AIDs.

“Swaziland has the highest per capita AIDS population in the world,” said Nilsen, “HIV doesn’t get the chance to get them; it’s the waterborne illness that kills them because of their immune systems are compromised.”

Not only does the Thirst Project fund and build the wells, but the group also establishes a program to maintain the infrastructure, with the locals taking on that role.

“This isn’t a handout; they have to put in the work too,” said Nilsen.

The Thirst Project mandates the people in the surrounding area to create a board of directors in charge of operation and upkeep.

“There is a lot of sweat-equity involved,”said Nilsen. “I’ve seen a woman with a sleeping baby on her back while she was mixing concrete with a shovel.”

Nilsen witnessed that first-hand during a Thirst Project-funded trip to Africa, during which she and others volunteered.

“They are invested in making differences, instead of [Thirst Project volunteers] just being the savior by building a well and going home.”

This year, the Thirst Project is sending Nilsen and the local chapter’s two co-presidents to help build the school’s sixth well in Swaziland.

“I am incredibly proud [of my students],” said Nilsen, adding that through the project, their eyes become open to people’s struggles beyond their own.

“They are much more aware of what’s going on the world,” she said.

Top: Former co-president Alicia Villafana in Swaziland last summer. (Courtesy photo) 

Co-presidents Cayla Romano and Ian Nilsen at a Thirst Project fundraiser at Pinot’s Palette in Bay Shore.