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Mentors visit fifth-grade activists at Crestwood Elementary

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By Rebecca DeSensi

A project that began on the first day of school has come full circle for the fifth-graders at Crestwood Elementary.“On the first day of school we started out listening to a song by Carla Gover, since then we’ve been learning about eastern Kentucky,” fifth-grader Victoria Henry said.Gover’s song, “Me and the Redbird River,” was a favorite of teacher Angela Hicks. “I was trying to think of something for inquiry, and I thought this was something I loved so maybe they’ll love it too. After we played the song, the kids had 150 questions.”The fifth-grade interest in activism grew when their education on eastern Kentucky taught them about mountain top removal and stream dumping. Henry said she wants to save the streams because, “the streams are connected to the Ohio River, and that’s connected to the Mississippi River, and if it goes down the line it could go to the oceans which could affect the entire United States.”In 2005 Kentucky was the first state in the nation to propose a bill that would end the dumping of mine wastes into headwater streams. The “Stream Saver Bill” has failed for the past three years; it has never even made it through committee. But the Crestwood Elementary fifth-graders have pressed on, continuing their interest in helping to purify the waters of eastern Kentucky. Hicks’ class has decided that in the meantime, they will collect money for water purifiers. Purifiers made from salt and a car battery can provide 10,000 people a day with clean water. In February the class traveled to Frankfort to participate in the I Heart Mountains Rally.“We went and met with our representatives and talked to them about it [House Bill 164],” fifth-grader Kaitlyn Klaber said. “We went on the front steps and listened to Wendell Barry. At random times people would yell out ‘Whose mountains? Our mountains! Whose streams? Our streams! Whose future? Our future!’ We were protesting for the stream saver bill.”The students have spent the school year contacting other activists involved the Stream Saver Bill and some of the students have even had their letters and correspondence printed in various publications. The students are encouraged about the difference they are making when they hear back from other activists.“I wanted to try something tough,” fifth-grader Will Nelms said. “Writing to an author is tough; you have to know the language authors write. So I wrote to Wendell Barry. The first time I was asking him what chemicals were in the water, and he wrote back and answered all of my questions.”Some of the activists have even taken the time to visit the fifth-grade classroom. April 1 the students hosted George Ella Lyons, an author and Harlan County, Kentucky native. Lyons says she’s been an activist as long as she can remember, but her devotion to stopping mountain top removal came two years ago after an invitation by the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “I was invited by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to go on an author tour, and we went down to Leslie County and went on a mountain top removal site,” Lyons told the class. “It was unbelievable what a dead place had been created by this. We went to the Hazard airport and went up in a four-seater plane and when we got out from the airport was when I really saw what it was all about. I felt like someone had hurled a bowling ball and hit me right there,” she said pointing to her stomach.The fifth-grade class presented Lyons with a signed version of one of their signature T-shirts, which reads: “Save Our Streams!” Lyons left the students with words of encouragement about their efforts to help the environment, “If you are standing up for what you believe, there is energy and hope in that!”The highlight of the week for the fifth-grade class was a visit by the songwriter who inspired their activism. On April 3, the class hosted folk singers Carla Gover and Mitch Barrett for the third, fourth and fifth-grade classes at Crestwood. Gover surprised the class by singing a song she had written in honor of their passion for activism. Gover will record “Superman Ain’t Coming,” later this month.The students were also visited April 16 by Bill Caylor, the president of the Kentucky Coal Association.