Gabrielle "Gabby" Kozera, 17, imagines the continent of Africa in the shape of the human heart, with clean water as the lifeblood of its many struggling nations.
As she began her senior year at Maryvale Preparatory School in Brooklandville, she launched her Water = Heart project with the goal of raising $4,600, the cost of drilling a community well for a village in Kenya.
"This one resource that we in America consider our right is often not even a basic in Africa," she said. "My church already sponsors a 'Wells in Africa' program, so I thought, 'Why can't I do that?' "
Initially, she organized the effort to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest badge and the culmination of her 13 years in the organization. But her project has evolved into much more than a quest for an award. She designed a Web site (waterisheart.webs.com) explaining the project and a T- shirt to help raise funds. She organized a water-theme bingo and drew friends, family, her church and her entire school into the project. And she has become a vocal proponent of water conservation.
"I kept thinking how I have taken this simple resource for granted my entire life," she wrote on the Web site. "Yet it had suddenly come to my attention that this resource is not so simple after all. In fact, it is a resource that billions of people in the world do not have access to."
Her fervor soon spilled over into classrooms at the school, where she has studied since sixth grade. Allison Jarboe, who joined her classmate in the project, researched water crises around the world and came up with compelling statistics that the two friends have used to bolster the campaign. According to The Water Project Inc., a nonprofit that is working to bring clean, accessible water to communities around the world, every 15 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease and water crises claim more lives annually than any war.
"I was really blown away by all the problems related to water," Allison said. "It really is a global issue."
The longtime friends gave a presentation on the water crisis to their schoolmates, nearly 400 girls in Grades 6 through 12.
"Their presentation was helpful and enlightening," said Sister Shawn Marie Maguire, SND, Maryvale's head mistress and president. "We are so proud of what they have done. Gabby and Allison have taken this project and run with it."
The two classmates organized a "Water Walk" for the middle school students, encouraging each to carry a jug of murky water uphill from a nearby stream to the school. They asked the younger girls, who gave up part of their lunch time for the walk, to think about the hardships children their age must endure.
"It really was a short walk compared to what kids in Africa have to do," Allison said. "Some of them have to walk three or four miles with a heavy jug on their heads and even then, the water isn't clean."
Gabby added, "So many kids get sick from dirty water but have nothing else to drink. Now, I think of them every time I take a drink or shower or wash dishes."
Spurred by the seniors' example, the younger students began their own fund-raising project. They began a week without soda, lemonade and fruit punch on Wednesday. By limiting their drinks to water and milk, they expect to reap considerable savings that they will contribute to the cause.
"Gabby and Allison have inspired this campaign," said Noelle Hopper, director of communications at Maryvale. "Their project has had a real domino effect."
Gabby designed a pale blue T-shirt with Africa, pictured as an anatomical heart, printed on its front, and she placed startling facts on water drops printed on the back. Sales of the shirts, proceeds from the water bingo and numerous donations have pushed the project close to the goal.
"It has been a lot of work, but everyone is having fun and learning something," said Allison.
At first the idea of raising $4,600 seemed a daunting undertaking to the teens, but they have already accumulated about $3,500 and are mulling over several ideas that will help them complete their task.
"I know that this is a huge, ambitious project, but everybody has backed us," Gabby said. "Because of this, a community in Kenya will have a well."
And, she added, she will know exactly where it is. The Water Project sends its donors the GPS coordinates of the wells they have helped build and photos of the communities.
Gabby hopes to study graphic design in college, and Allison wants to pursue biology or nursing. Both can picture a trip to Africa sometime in their future.
"I would love to go to Kenya and see our well," Gabby said.
Knowing the effort put into this year's water project, Sister Shawn said that trip is entirely possible.
"These girls had a dream and made it happen," she said.