Two New Albany High School seniors traveled to Guatemala in February to study water quality in developing countries.

Two New Albany High School seniors traveled to Guatemala in February to study water quality in developing countries.

Keyana Aghamirzadeh, 17, and Allison Lopez, 17, said they chose their senior seminar project, a New Albany High School graduation requirement, after participating in a district initiative called Hand-in-Hand with Haiti during the 2012-13 school year.

New Albany students in all grades raised $25,000 for an orphanage in Haiti after studying the work of Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, which provides free health care to impoverished people on four continents.

The money was earmarked to establish a tilapia-fishing operation -- a sustainable business along the lines of what Farmer advocates -- at the Zanmi Beni Children's Home in Haiti.

Both girls said they had a personal connection with the initiative. New Albany students sold T-shirts designed by Aghamirzadeh and they purchased water backpacks designed by Greif, an industrial packaging company based in central Ohio, where Lopez's father, Chris, works.

"We learned about clean-water initiatives and it personally interested me because I didn't realize it affected so many people," Aghamirzadeh said.

"We became passionate about this as juniors and chose to continue those efforts," Lopez said. "We researched how this (issue) affects the whole world and traveled to Guatemala to see how the people are affected."

The girls were in Guatemala from Feb. 15 to 21. They helped construct cement block ovens and cooktops in homes, and they trained residents how to use the stoves to heat water and make it potable.

Lopez said they also taught the Guatemalans how to make and sell backpacks that can carry water safely.

Though both girls said they will present different aspects of the work in their senior seminar presentations, both were struck by the poverty they encountered.

"The whole thing was a huge culture shock," Lopez said. "People were considered fortunate and well off if they had four walls and a roof."

"It's an entirely different culture and not what I expected at all," Aghamirzadeh said. "They're very grateful for anything they have, and they have so little. Here, we're always about the next and newest things."

Lopez said she plans to study psychology or a similar field in college, perhaps at Denison University in Granville. She said she wants to continue to provide clean water to those in need and might start an initiative at the college or university she attends.

"The biggest thing I would say I learned would be probably that this global water crisis that we've been studying affects the entire world: Americans and everybody," Lopez said. "I wasn't really aware of that beforehand."

Aghamirzadeh said she, too, wants to continue helping others.

"I'd like to start a nonprofit (organization), one that works like the ones we worked with in Guatemala," she said.

Aghamirzadeh said she is considering studying business at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but she has not taken her last trip to Guatemala.

"I know that I want to go back to Guatemala," she said. "I enjoy learning about things that I'm passionate about and I'm thankful for the opportunity to have gotten that experience."

The girls will present the results of their senior seminar projects separately to a panel of teachers this month.

New Albany High School's senior seminar requires students to research an idea and create a product or complete a project, while documenting 80 hours of work, in order to graduate.