Scotch Plains Native Inspires Children to Help Others

By JENNIFER GLACKIN
For The Leader/Times

SCOTCH PLAINS — He did it! James Leitner, a Scotch Plains native, ran 30 miles every day for 30 days and raised $36,000 for his non-profit, MissionCleanWater, surpassing his original goal of $30,000.

According to the World Health Organization’s website, 2.2 billion people worldwide make daily trips to acquire or do not have access to safe, clean water. A total of 1.4 billion water-insecure people travel 30 minutes round trip to bring clean water to their homes or schools, while 206 million journey farther distances each day. Another 579 million people get their water from unprotected sources. Many of these people are women and children, said Mr. Leitner.

Since forming his organization, Mr. Leitner has taken on symbolic challenges to bring awareness to this plight and fund sustainable solutions. While trying to design fundraisers and tell the stories of these individuals and communities, Mr. Leitner said he learned “long-distance is the best way to symbolize what people go through every day to get clean water for their families.” In 2016, he ran a marathon every month to symbolize the amount of miles some families walk each day for water. In 2017, he walked 3,250 miles from New Jersey to California while pulling 10 gallons of water, to represent the distance a child will walk in a year to get clean water.

For his latest 30 miles in 30 days challenge, Mr. Leitner raised money for St. Elizabeth’s Girls’ School in Mityana, Uganda. Mr. Leitner runs 30 miles in approximately six hours, which correlates to the six hours per day the students of St. Elizabeth’s travel to and from their clean water source to bring drinking water to their fellow students, missing three to four classes per day. A closer sanitary water source will allow the girls more time in the classroom to further their education.

Mr. Leitner’s latest undertaking has inspired a group of students from Cranford. These local children each pledged to run one mile a day for 30 days. “I am personally motivated by what they are doing,” said Mr. Leitner. “I don’t know if I would have done something like that in third grade.”

Alissa Sojka, the parent who organized the fund-raising effort on Facebook, told The Westfield Leader, “I think what James does is very important and beneficial not only for the kids in Uganda, but also for our kids! Having an example of a young adult who chose to take a lead in such a challenging project is a great inspiration for the kids.” The “Kids Run 30 Miles for MissionCleanWater” group has grown to include more than 30 children ranging in ages from 6 to 10. Their original goal was to raise $2,500, but as of Tuesday, the kids had raised $3,000.

Tyler Bigelow, a rising fourth grader from Cranford, said, “I am inspired by James because he likes to help people. I really like to help people, too.” He continued, “I hope our efforts really pay off and inspire others to do the same!” Mr. Leitner joined the group for a daily mile in mid-July, and Ms. Sojka said the kids were excited to wear their team shirts for the final mile on July 30.

Fund-raising efforts for the 30-day challenge surpassed the $30,000 goal on July 25 and the project at St. Elizabeth’s is already underway. The MissionCleanWater team met with St. Elizabeth’s faculty on July 24, and began flushing the nearby wells to check their suitability last week, according to MissionCleanWater’s Facebook page.

“Roughly 60 percent of clean-water projects completed globally are no longer working,” Mr. Leitner told The Leader. The reason for this, according to MissionCleanWater’s website, is that, “Projects are implemented too quickly, without proper consultation and coordination with local communities.” Mr. Leitner’s organization approaches its projects differently. He said, “As a non-profit organization, we are working to develop new project sustainability models to see longer success in water sanitation and hygiene projects.

While Mr. Leitner’s latest challenge ends today, the water problem people face around the world does not. Anyone interested in donating or wishing to start their own fundraiser can reach out to Mr. Leitner and his team through their website, missioncleanwater.org.

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