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Eighth-grader leads effort to help East Chicago residents
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Eighth-grader leads effort to help East Chicago residents

Groups collecting bottled water for East Chicago residents received their largest single donation yet Wednesday when the Northwest Indiana Islamic Center gave more than 5,000 bottles.

Ranya Kawamleh, an eighth-grader at Union Township Schools, began raising money to buy the water after attending a rally last month in Valparaiso to show support for Syrian refugees following President Donald Trump's travel ban, said her mother, Khouloud Kawamleh.

Khouloud Kawamleh said she and Ranya spoke to an East Chicago resident during the rally about the lead crisis, and Ranya became determined to help.

"She loves the community," Khouloud Kawamleh said of her daughter, who serves on the board of the Islamic Center's youth group. "She loves to connect with the community around us, to reach out."

Frank Szczepanski, of Blue Valpo, said Khouloud Kawamleh met volunteers at Sam's Club, where they planned to pick up the water. Khouloud Kawamleh immediately offered up her own vehicle when it became clear all 185 cases would not fit in the three vehicles with Szczepanski, he said.

The group dropped the water off at First Baptist Church and St. John AME Church, both in the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago's Calumet neighborhood. The Rev. Douglas Sloss at First Baptist and the Rev. Bonita Hawkins at St. John AME were on hand to receive the water.

Khouloud Kawamleh, a Syrian American, said it was a joy to see the happiness in the faces of church leaders as the water was delivered.

"I was so happy to be with them," she said.

The center has been working to be more active in the community and has participated in interfaith events, she said.

The Environmental Protection Agency began a cleanup of lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil in the area last summer.

EPA tested water as part of a pilot study to determine if excavation work can cause lead to become dislodged from pipes and enter the water supply. However, the federal agency found elevated lead levels in water at 18 homes before any digging began.

EPA said the problem is likely to be systemwide and has recommended all water customers assume they have lead lines and filter any water used for consumption.

Lead in the water and lead in the soil are not related, but residents exposed to both face cumulative health risks. A contractor for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management began distributing water filters to residents in zones 2 and 3 of the Superfund site Monday.

Blue Valpo has been coordinating with the Community Strategy Group for bottled water donations for residents in all three residential cleanup zones in the Superfund site.

Anyone interested in donating water or volunteering can call Szczepanski at 219-840-0007 or Wanda Gordils at 219-218-2737.

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