Feb. 10 2016 11:41 AM

Notes from an afternoon with water volunteers in Flint

Two water-bearing volunteers knocked at the door of a tiny house on Flint's north side Sunday afternoon. Five barefoot kids, ages 3 to 11, nearly outnumbered the few pieces of furniture inside. The 3-year-old was standing on a table, in a onesie, looking out the window. The woman who answered the door was pregnant and due in March.
Duane Breijik of Lansing and Alexandra Arjona of Chicago were among about 40 volunteers who delivered water and filters to Flint residents Sunday for the nonprofit group Crossing Water.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

They needed a lot of water.

The 11-year-old boy scampered to the car parked on the street and brought a 10-gallon jug, almost as big as he was, up the porch steps and into the house. He went back to the car for another jug while the two volunteers, Duane Breijik of Lansing and Alexandra Arjona of Chicago, carried several cases of 12-ounce water bottles to the door.

When the run was over, Breijik and Arjona settled back in the car, but left the window open, even though it was February in Flint. They were sweaty and out of breath.

"Next house."

Breijik and Arjona were part of a cohort of about 80 volunteers who fanned out through Flint Sunday, organized by the 2-month-old nonprofit group Crossing Water.

They bobbed from house to house like corks in an ocean of need.

The group hosts a meeting in Lansing Thursday for people who want to help Flint through a massive, man-made disaster with no end in sight.

"Maybe they just want to hear about what we're doing and donate five bucks," co-organizer Joel Meredith of Lansing said. "Maybe they want to get themselves, their family, their church involved. Wherever people are, whatever they can do, we want to connect them with this urgent need in Flint."

Since the group was organized, the work has settled into a mildly frantic routine. Sunday, while one group canvassed neighborhoods to find out what people needed, a second group, seeded with health professionals and social workers, followed up. Calls for help were also coming in via a phone bank.

Breijik and Arjona squeezed a reporter from City Pulse into the back seat to see what the teams were doing, on the condition that the clients would not be identified or photographed.

The donated water came from all over Michigan and beyond. One of the cases stacked in the back seat had a piece of paper taped on top, with a message carefully written in crayon: "Much love, Auntie Na's House and the Detroit water brigade."

At the first house on the list, a lady in powder blue pajamas made her way with some difficulty to the door. Her three kids, she told them, were at church. She thanked them for the water and the filter and asked when shower filters would be available.

Crossing Water's co-founder and operational director, Michael Hood, hears that question often and said his team is looking into it.

"People have been taking showers with a bucket over their head, like a Third World country, for weeks," Hood said.

Hood, a wilderness survival instructor from Ann Arbor, has his hands full helping Flint with its own survival.

Crossing Water teams are trained to do more than drop water and filters at the doorstep, as the Red Cross and other agencies do. They help people install the filters, make plumbing fixes and look for physical or emotional health issues that need attention. Volunteers are also sent to neighborhoods where undocumented immigrants, homebound and elderly people may have been overlooked.

Volunteers are still finding people, even pregnant women, who don't know you shouldn't drink the water. Others are simply running out of water, don't have filters or don't know how to install them.

"I wish there were 100 response teams," Hood told the volunteers Sunday. "There's 100,000 people in this town."

When word needed to go out that boiling water does not remove lead, Crossing Water bought several billboards and a roving sign truck to put out the message, in Spanish and English.

Contrary to some reports, Hood said, water is still needed in Flint, "in whatever container it can arrive — 50 gallon drums, three gallon jugs or the damn 12-ounce bottles."

Despite a mounting recycling problem, the disabled, the elderly and homebound can't wrangle bigger jugs and still need smaller bottles.

"In most cases, it gets used up as fast as it comes in," Hood told the group.

Between stops on their Sunday afternoon run, Breijik filled Arjona in on dubious points of Michigan history and lore, from the state's emergency manager law to the star power of Michigan natives like Eminem and Cher who weighed in on the crisis. As we drove through the city, the familiar Rust Belt patchwork of nicely trimmed homes, cheek by jowl with burntout shells of homes and stores, swept by under the gray clouds.

Sunday's volunteers were grimly amused by the contrast between the firehose of national fuss over Flint and the drip, drip, drip of their own piecemeal efforts.

Across town, Hillary Clinton, speaking at House of Prayer Baptist Missionary Church, was telling a crowd of listeners she was "outraged" and "heartsick." That day, a New York Times editorial complained of more "handwringing and apologies" than "concrete action" in Flint.

"What gets me, is with all this national attention, little groups like Crossing Water are doing all the manual labor," Breijik said.

The mild remark was all the political venting I heard that day. The volunteers focused their frustration on the job at hand.

Arjona was smiling and chatting as if she hadn't been up since 4 a.m. She drove to Flint from Chicago and planned to drive back home that night. She decided to volunteer after hearing about a Chicago firefighter who trucked six semis of water to Flint at the end of January. As director and founder of a Chicago youth support organization, SMILE for Change, Arjona hopes to keep on helping Flint from her do-gooder network in Chicago.

She brought coats, clothes and sanitary napkins to Flint Sunday.

"I'm not government funded, but that doesn't stop me from doing God's work," Arjona said.

I knew I was only seeing tiny pieces of a giant puzzle. To get my head around Flint's predicament, I tried to summon up the most dramatic mental image of governmental collapse I could. Being from Michigan, the worst I could do was picture the Mackinac Bridge, crumbling into the blue water below. I imagined volunteers in little boats, ferrying people across the Straits, past the towering, broken columns, with no Coast Guard or Army Corps of Engineers in sight.

Bob Pratt of East Lansing shows volunteers for the nonprofit group Crossing Water how to install water filters at a volunteer meeting in Flint on Sunday.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

It's a far-fetched fantasy, but Flint is already past that point. Michigan did without the Mackinac Bridge before 1959 and could do so again. People need water every day.

After a few more routine stops, it was almost 4 p.m. Back at the church, Breijik and Arjona decided to squeeze in another round of clients and picked up three more addresses. The sun was getting low and there was no time to waste. No runs are allowed after dark.

The first client on the list was marked "priority": a household of eight. Breijik and Arjona picked up twice as much water as they did on the first run, plus baby wipes and more filters. Breijik wrangled the water while scarfing a bag of chips to tide him over until dinner. This time, there was no room left in the back seat for a reporter.

Crossing Water

Lansing Meeting to Help Flint 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 11 The Avenue Cafe 2021 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing to volunteer call (517) 420-4341 email Michael Hood at oldvoyageur@gmail.com