Flint athletes ‘can’t even go to the fountain’

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Flint —  Roughly 150 cases of bottled water occupy a corner of Flint Northwestern athletic director Michael Thompson’s office.

Northwestern High player Lee Lewis, left, and coach Napoleon Petteway hydrate with bottled water in a recent home game. The crisis has affected the water supplies of about 12 schools in the Flint district.

There’s 60 donated cases from Ladel Lewis, a member of Flint Northern’s 1994-95 Class A girls basketball championship teams, an entire shelf of bottled water from Flint’s Patsy Lou Chevrolet and a row of gallon jugs from nearby North Central Church of Christ.

Since the beginning of the football season, Thompson’s office has served as a makeshift storage unit for bottled water — a necessity nowadays for Northwestern’s student athletes.

The school just inside Flint’s northernmost city limits relies on the contaminated, lead-filled water from the Flint River, making it one of the countless victims of a crisis that has been declared a federal state of emergency.

But Northwestern isn’t alone. According to a statement released by Flint Community Schools superintendent Bilal Tawwab in October, Northwestern is just one of 12 affected schools in the district.

“It’s just something you have to deal with, like anything in life,” Thompson said. “You can’t let it get you down. You gotta put your best foot forward and hope for the best.”

According to Thompson, the athletic department and school hasn’t had to pay for any of the bottled water it has used throughout the school year thanks to an outpouring of support from people across the country.

“All the water we have has been donated,” said Thompson, who added athletics alone goes through 12 cases of water a day. “You name it, we’ve been getting water from everywhere. It hasn’t cost us a dime.”

For weekend practices, though, bottled water is stashed in a coach’s office inside the gym. But if the supply runs out and Thompson isn’t around to open his office, basketball players don’t have the luxury of using the two drinking fountains outside the gym doors because they are shut down along with all the others in the school.

Instead, Northwestern junior guard Darious Young said the team sometimes has to purchase its own water.

“I feel like we’re working hard at practice and I can’t even go to the fountain to get some water. You got to have some water bottles with you, which is unnecessary,” Young said. “I got family that stays in Detroit, and they’re drinking water and we can’t do it here. I feel like this is nonsense.”

During home sporting events, like the Northwestern boys basketball team’s Saginaw Valley League South Division game against Flint Carman-Ainsworth on Friday, Thompson supplies both teams with four to five cases of water, a cooler full of ice and a bin for recycling the empty bottles. Recycle bins are also located throughout the school to ensure bottles aren’t being thrown away in the trash.

Thompson said he makes sure to explain to the visitors prior to tip-off that the bottled water — but not the ice — is safe to drink.

“When a team comes in, we notify them as we escort them to the locker room that bottled water will be provided and ready for them,” Thompson said. “We’ve had no problems or complaints.”

Carman-Ainsworth freshman Tommy Armstrong, who lives in Flint Township, was one of several players who was scared to the drink the water, which prompted coach Jay Witham to take precautions.

“We knew they’d have some water for us but we brought our own,” Witham said. “Freshman, JV, we all brought a case of water, so we knew we were going to be taken care of.

“The thing is I got a lot of kids who live in the city also, so they’ve been dealing with it themselves. ... I mean, they bathe differently. They’re splashing water on their faces instead of getting in the water. They’re using bottled water to wash up. It’s nuts, that’s for sure.”

It’s a nightmare several other Flint area high schools, including Flint Hamady, Flint Kearsley and Flint Beecher, haven’t experienced. They are all outside the city limits and, therefore, don’t draw any of the toxic water.

Flint Powers Catholic relocated to a new campus in downtown Flint starting in the 2013-14 school year, but tests haven’t found any traces of lead or contaminants in the water.

“We’re adjusting to it,” Northwestern boys basketball coach Napoleon Petteway said. “It’s sad that it took this long for somebody to see what we’ve been going through.”

After games, practices and even gym classes, Thompson said students seldom use the showers at Northwestern. However, basketball referees commonly do and there haven’t been any health-related problems, according to Thompson.

But whether Northwestern senior forward Donovan Middleton showers at school or at home, he has no other choice but to bathe in the contaminated water. At 6-foot-6, Middleton said he’s too big to rely on just bottled water to clean up.

“We gotta wash our face,” Middleton said. “Then what if gets in your eyes? You don’t know what it’ll do to you.”

Young tries to shower at his aunt’s house in Flushing every night in an attempt to avoid bathing in it as much as possible.

“When I’m at home, I try to take quick showers in it, but it don’t even feel right when I get out the shower,” he said. “I get the itch and all that stuff. Like two weeks ago, I had a rash on my leg, but it’s gone now.”

When it comes to simple everyday tasks, like making food, Middleton and Young said there’s a constant temptation to use the tap water.

“I got to catch myself though,” Young said. “My mom buys four cases of water and four cases of Gatorade every two weeks. I’m really getting tired of spending her money on water. We’re paying $400 for a water bill and we don’t even use it.”

One of many drinking fountains marked "out of service" at Northwestern High School Flint, Michigan, campus. (Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)2016

Middleton admits he still uses water from the faucet to brush his teeth every day and said he believes that could be a reason why his appetite has changed.

“I just know my eating habits are different. I can’t eat as much I used to,” Middleton said. “Like I used to go back and eat seconds. I don’t eat seconds no more.”

Northwestern junior forward Wesley Fisher can’t help but be concerned about the possible long-term effects the water could have, especially after his aunt was recently hospitalized with an aching stomach and sore throat.

“I’m just worried about my family, that’s it. Other people too, but more my family,” Fisher said. “I just want it to get fixed. We ain’t never had to go through nothing like this.

“It’s hard knowing up the street got good water and we don’t.”

For Young, the hardest part is coming to grips with how something like this could even happen.

“I can’t see how somebody can sleep knowing somebody is in danger. You got families in danger with water,” Young said. “This time it’s not no bullets; it’s the water that’s doing it.”

Less than 10 miles away, Flint Southwestern Classical Academy has had to endure the same ordeal.

Like Northwestern, Southwestern has strictly used bottled water since the official start of football season, according to athletic director Joe Tyler Jr.

Tyler estimates he goes through 96-100 bottles a day during the winter sports season. Whether a team has practice or a triple-header, Tyler said he makes sure to get an early start icing down bottled water in coolers.

“It’s just part of my day,” he said. “I got it down to a routine, so it doesn’t take no more than 10-15 minutes. ... The biggest thing is to just make sure (the water) is cold. If it’s not cold, they’re not going to drink it.”

Students and athletes have also been able to use showers in a section of the school where the pipes haven’t corroded and have tested free of lead, according to Tyler.

Tyler added that all the drinking fountains in the school have been completely shut off and a separate room is used to store the cases of donated water that continue to pour in on a daily basis.

“Everybody took it upon themselves to contribute. We’ve received donations from Saginaw, Goodrich, Clinton, Detroit, all over,” Tyler said. “People who went to Flint Southwestern Academy have been giving us water, too. Everybody is stepping up to the plate.”