When she was just eight years old, Mari Copeny, otherwise known as "Little Miss Flint," wrote to President Barack Obama asking if he would come meet with her and other citizens of Flint, Michigan. At the time, the city was in the midst of a water crisis; residents had been exposed to contaminated water that was poisoning the community and killed 12 people.
Obama responded to Copeny and ended up visiting the city, and he later signed off on $100 million to help repair Flint's water system. And Copeny has continued to focus on her activism, handing out hundreds of thousands of water bottles to families, becoming a Women's March Youth Ambassador, and donating backpacks and school supplies to children in Flint.
This month marks five years since the water crisis began, and still, some residents don't trust the city's water supply. Here, Copeny looks back on the crisis, the work she's done, and where we are now.
If you told me five years ago that Flint would not be fixed, I would not have believed you. After all, when you’re a kid and something bad happens, it’s those in power’s job to actually step up and fix it-and fix it fast. It’s also those in power's job to tell the truth. But that did not happen in Flint, and those lies and cover ups cost my community.
If you told me five years ago that millions around the world would know who I was and that I would have made a impact, I would not have believed you.
If you told me five years ago I would be an activist, I would not have believed you.
But the past five years have taught me to believe the unbelievable.
A couple years ago, you couldn’t turn on the news without the headlines being all about Flint and its water crisis. The entire world knew there was a deadly crisis in Flint. All eyes were on the city, and donations and help poured in from every corner of the world.
When the water crisis began, all I wanted to do was to fight for my younger siblings, especially my little sister, who would get such bad rashes from the water that she would need to be covered in a special ointment and wrapped in plastic wrap to try to help heal her skin. I wanted to fight for all the kids here that were scared and confused. I wanted to fight for the adults that had to teach the kids that the water was poison. Back in the beginning, nobody believed that anyone would listen to me, not even my mom. After all, I was just an eight-year-old kid. But I knew I had to keep fighting, keep speaking, keep trying until someone listened. It didn’t take long to prove my mom (and many other adults) wrong. The more I spoke up, the more people actually listened. I even got the attention of President Obama. And the more people that paid attention to me, the more I realized I had a platform and that I could use it to help my city. My mom always tells me, "When bad things happen in our lives, always look for the good." This platform was the good, and I knew that I could use it to help Flint, and eventually, change the world.
With this platform I have been able to give back in some very big ways. We have given out over one million bottles of water and raised a quarter of a million dollars to make sure that bottled water doesn’t run out until residents feel like this crisis is over. With my Flint Kids Read campaign, I have been able to give out thousands of books, and to date, we have given out over 17,000 fully stuffed backpacks to kids in my community. With help from a friend, I was able to give Flint kids 600 bikes for my birthday, along with a party for them, complete with inflatables, a candy bar, and more. Our Easter egg hunt brought joy to 400 kids. My Dear Flint Kids letter campaign has gotten thousands of letters into the hands of Flint kids, telling them that the world has not forgotten them and that they're amazing. I have been able to travel coast to coast to speak about Flint and Flint kids. And I'm not stopping anytime soon.
It's clear the water here still makes people feel uneasy. When there are water distributions, people line up hours early to get bottled water, which has become the only water many people here trust. After the cameras and media left, the people in Flint learned a new way of life. No more bubble baths or turning on the tap to get a drink of water. No more using tap water to cook or brush your teeth. We have kids here starting school that have never known what life is like to turn on the tap to get a drink of water, a whole generation of kids that have been exposed to toxic water. There are adults that are so afraid of water, they would rather take sponge baths using bottled water instead of getting in the shower. We still have people sick from the effects of the bad water.
And Flint is not unique. I wish I could say this is just one terrible tragedy and that the rest of the country is safe from a similar crisis. But that just isn’t the truth. There are people all across the country living with a water crisis, and they may not be aware of it. We have an American Water Crisis, and it should be on the front pages of every newspaper across the country.
I will never fully trust the government or media. If something they say doesn’t sit right with me, I will always question it. I will never trust tap water ever again. Flint has taught me that we need to listen to and believe in science and to always question, even the things we take for granted the most.
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