When Flint, Michigan, resident Vanessa Terrell first learned that even boiling her water wouldn’t make it safe to drink, she told her granddaughter that they were “back to pioneer days.”
Terrell doesn’t own a car and relies on her bicycle to get around Flint, making it nearly impossible for her to transport large quantities of water from pickup locations back to her home. Her granddaughter, when she was only eight years old, lugged cases of bottled water home with her on the school bus, bringing two cases on days when she could find a friend to help her carry them.
Terrell called the Michigan 2-1-1 help line to get water delivered to her house, but she says that she’s received inconsistent service. She was taken off the delivery list several times, she says, because she wasn’t at home to receive the water. Although Terrell lives on her Social Security income, she also does volunteer work, both at a local church and at the Catholic school that her granddaughter attends.
“Just because I wasn’t home doesn’t mean I’m not still in need,” Terrell says.
While learning that the city’s drinking water contained unsafe levels of lead was a shock, Terrell says, it’s only one of the stressors of living in Flint, where two in five residents live in poverty and 35 percent of adults read at a first-grade level. “Any situation— education, medical, roads, transportation, groceries, housing—you name it, it’s broken,” Terrell says. “It needs help.”
The reason Terrell sends her granddaughter to Catholic school, despite her limited means, is because of what she calls the “deplorable” state of local schools. At the charter school that her granddaughter previously attended, Terrell says, there were 52 students in her second-grade classroom. Terrell’s granddaughter has been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which Terrell suspects may be a result of exposure to lead in the water, although she can’t say for sure. Her granddaughter’s blood tests came back negative for lead, and Terrell can’t afford a hair test that would show whether the girl was exposed to the poisonous heavy metal in the past.
This was Terrell’s situation—scared of the water in her pipes, unable to bring clean water home or get it delivered without difficulty, and worried about much more than just what was coming out of her faucet—when a woman knocked on her door last year with an unexpected delivery of bottled water. The woman was a volunteer from an organization called Crossing Water.
“I just liked the feel,” Terrell says of the visit. “I liked what I felt in my soul. I said, ‘How do I get involved with your group?’”