Chris Heffernan—Someone You Should Know

February 2016 View more

NMAG0216_SYSK_nm Chris Heffernan 1_800pxSocial Studies can be a potentially dry subject for junior high students, as it encompasses psychology, history and geography. But one Naperville teacher has given it life by using his lessons as a platform to bring clean water to children in developing countries. Award-winning Jefferson Junior High teacher Chris Heffernan is now traveling the world as part of his job and has helped raise more than $20,000 for clean water projects.

This is a year when the stars just aligned for me,” says the unassuming teacher who has worked at the school for 15 years. “I would like to think I inspire the kids but really I’m just helping them do what they want.”

Has bringing clean water to underdeveloped countries always been a passion of yours?

It has always been an interest of mine. I don’t think I can do anything to bring about world peace or solve the problem of global warming, but trying to get clean water for everyone is something we can help find a solution for.

How did the idea for a clean water fundraiser come about?

We started talking about water issues in the Middle East and Africa as part of the social studies curriculum a couple of years ago. I told the students how children often have difficulty accessing water. On average, women and children in Africa have to walk three miles to collect fresh water, then walk three miles back with water-filled containers. It was the students who decided they wanted to start a fundraiser. They came up with different ideas like doing a car wash but decided that would actually waste water! Eventually they decided on a walk to raise money and awareness. We did the first one in 2014 by walking around the perimeter of the school carrying two gallon containers of water.

I understand news of the project spread leading to more support than you imagined. What happened?

I was approached by John Gallagher, who was the president of the Rotary Club of Naperville at the time. He is passionate about education and said the club would like to match what we had raised. Because of that, we made $4,500 in our first year, which was amazing! The children were so proud that they had nearly doubled their goal. In 2015 the Rotary Club made me a Paul Harris fellow, which was a great honor. Last year we did the walk again and this time they gave us a matching grant of $10,000 so we raised over $20,000. Working with a nonprofit called H2O for Life we have been able to help clean water projects in South Sudan, the Dominican Republic, India and Nigeria. Each year more schools have joined us and we are planning to walk again in May.

You’ve recently returned from Cambodia. What were you doing there?

I was invited to join Project Explorer. They make educational videos for students letting them know what life is like for children in other parts of the world. It was an amazing experience. It was fascinating to see the dichotomy of women weaving silks just like their ancestors with iPhones next to them. I was able to Skype with my students in class while I was there. Next summer I’m going abroad again with Teachers for Global Classrooms. I have been unbelievably lucky to have been recognized for things that so many other teachers are doing. My natural tendency is to deflect. I couldn’t have done any of this without the support of other teachers, parents and students who want to help others.

Photo by Robyn Sheldon