Hannah Likier was raised by socially conscious parents who wanted their three daughters to get involved with efforts to better their community.
So it was no surprise that for her bat mitzva project, their middle daughter, Hannah, chose to tackle lead contamination in water, a health hazard that particularly affects children living in substandard housing.
“A lot of these kids are my age, and I felt it wasn’t fair they should have to get sick or die when it’s so easy to do something about it,” said the 12-year-old Piscataway resident who will become bat mitzva Sept. 10 at Temple Emanu-El in Edison. “I felt they should have the same chance we do and not have to drink this water.”
Hannah, who is about to begin eighth grade at Theodore Schor Middle School in Piscataway, joined the Lead Free Kids NJ campaign of NJ Citizen Action, a grassroots organization that fights for economic and social justice. She began speaking about the issue to school gatherings and community groups and collected more than 300 children’s traced handprints — her original goal was 100 by July 4 — representing the youngsters who were poisoned by lead contamination last year. The handprints were presented to an aide of Gov. Chris Christie June 29 at a Statehouse press conference in Trenton, where she also met with a number of legislators.
Her mother, Marvette, said she and her husband, Michael — who serves as social action chair at Emanu-El — always tried to engage Hannah; her older sister, Alissa; and younger sister, Jasmine, in grassroots community projects.
The idea to join the fight against water contamination was suggested by her father.
“In general no one should have to worry about water,” said Hannah. “Water is a necessity. You should not be scared to eat or drink something you need to survive.”
The issue had recently exploded into public awareness as a result of news coverage about lead contamination in Flint, Mich., following the city’s switch to a less expensive water source, and its failure to take measures to prevent corrosion of water pipes. State officials allegedly concealed the lead contamination, leading to a state of emergency being declared in January by Gov. Rick Snyder and President Barack Obama in the economically disadvantaged and mostly minority city.
The following month it was reported that children in 11 NJ cities had higher lead contamination rates than the youngsters in Flint; soon after came reports of lead-contaminated water from old pipes in schools, particularly in Newark.
Christie announced in early May that $10 million would be allotted for water-testing in schools statewide, with the threshold for intervention lowered when a child tests positive for lead exposure.
High lead levels in blood is especially harmful to children and pregnant women and can cause “learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and mental retardation,” according to the World Health Organization.
On its website, NJ Citizen Action accused Christie of raiding New Jersey’s Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund “every year of his administration in order to balance the budget.” The organization considers the $10 million appropriation a “huge victory” for its Lead Free Kids NJ campaign.
Marvette said that although the campaign asked only for the handprints, Hannah “went out of her way to talk to community organizations and to her peers,” including the Girl Scouts, religious organizations, and school groups. “She did all her own research and explained it in a way they could understand,” said Marvette. “We are extremely proud.”
Hannah said she hopes her project will inspire other young people to join the campaign; the ones she spoke to seemed “eager to help once they knew about the organization from my presentation.”
Hannah plans to keep in contact with the organization. “If they ask me something or to do another project, I’ll be doing it definitely.”
Her only disappointment — the governor didn’t accept the handprints in person and never acknowledged receiving them.
“Well,” said her mother, “maybe because it’s summer. We’re still hoping to get an acknowledgment from him.”