VPI’s EmpoweRun 5K Raises Awareness, Money and a Few Heart Rates

Vort Port International (VPI) volunteers have traveled to the far reaches of the earth — rural villages in India, the jungles of Uganda, the island nation of Madagascar — but early on a brisk Saturday morning in March many found themselves in what was, at least for them, new territory: Washington DC’s Rock Creek Park.

On March 2, 2013, VPI hosted its first 5K race/walk. Dubbed the “EmpoweRun”, the event saw 118 runners make their way through a 3.1 mile looped course of wooded trail by Rock Creek in the heart of Washington DC.

“I had a really great time. It was my first time running in a few weeks due to an injury, and I wasn’t sure whether I could drag myself out my warm bed so early on a Saturday. Really glad I did though — thank you for organizing this!” said participant Kathleen Coffey.

And runner Alvin Chen had this to say about the race: “I did my first 5K ever today and wanted to thank you all for a great event. Plus I learned a lot about VPI’s mission. Great work all around.”

The overall winner was Chip Daymude of Washington, DC, finishing with a speedy time of 18:33. Kate Norberg, also of Washington, DC, was the first woman to cross the finish line with a time of 23:17.

Several VPI volunteers participated as well, including Media Director, and first time 5K runner, Patrick Kwiatkowski, whose “rigorous” — and hopefully inspiring — training was documented in a series of humorous videos.

“When I realized that communities living below the poverty line abroad might benefit from my feeble attempt at some exercise — how could I resist? Every cramp and sore I might suffer is worth the chance to lift impoverished communities up with smart, sustainable technologies and practices — an easy price to pay,” said Kwiatkowski.

A series of signs along the course such as “You have just run half of the distance it takes for Ugandan children to go to school. You’re halfway there!” and, at the two mile mark, “You have just run half the distance it takes for women in Africa and Asia to gather water. Water ahead!” helped let runners know how far they had run, as well as remind them why they were running in the first place.

Post-race participants enjoyed drinks, snacks and an upbeat playlist of songs while cheering on the finishers that continued to roll in until just under the 58-minute mark.

The EmpoweRun raised more than $2,000 towards supporting VPI’s projects, which help further the development and distribution of technologies that provide basic needs such as sanitation, transportation, light and clean water in high-need areas of the world.

VPI would like to thank our sponsors Pacers Running Store, ING Financial Partners, Pepsi and Chamane Energy Drink; raceDC Timing for timing the event and all the runners and volunteers who came out to support the inaugural race.

Photos and results from the EmpoweRun can be found here.

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

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2012 in Review

Season’s greetings to our members, friends, families, and all of our supporters. Thank you for your continued support through this eventful year. We understand that with the global economic uncertainty, natural disasters, and other world events, that giving may be difficult; we appreciate your support that much more.

This year has also been one of learning and growth for Vort Port International (VPI). It is easy to get caught up in our day-to-day tasks that we often forget to step back and look at how much ground we’ve covered. Let’s re-visit all that VPI  has accomplished in 2012, towards our mission of improving the lives of those who lack access to basic necessities.

In late January, the India Solar Lamp project (ISL) project director, Chandni Shah, technical lead, Nick Imbriglia, and I visited India to conduct a feasibility assessment. We traveled through the streets of New Delhi, across the country and ultimately, ended in southern India, where we met with an amazing organization, the South Central Indian Network for Development Alternatives (SCINDeA). Their council, as well as input from village members significantly improved ISL’s solar lamp design. The local community shed light on how light translates directly into safety, education, and the opportunity to earn a living after the sunlit hours of the day. Beyond the technology, the ISL team is developing curriculum geared toward women.  ISL will impart new skills on how to build, sell, and maintain this project’s solar lamps. They will also teach women solar technology works. Knowing many close friends who lost power after Hurricane Sandy, we have greater appreciation for a product like VPI’s solar lamp — an affordable lamp that can be operated without an electrical grid, and in tough weather conditions.

In June, the Bandha Bikes project director, Song Nguyen, visited rural Uganda, where she showcased the project’s first bicycle frame (built with the help of Justin Moyer and other undergraduate students at the University of Michigan) to potential pilot villages and community partners. The bicycle, made from locally-sourced bamboo, represents the potential for improved transportation and job-creation in the region. The bamboo prototype elicited immense interest from our various partners including Arise and Shine Uganda, Nansana Children’s Center, and Real Partners Uganda. The team is also developing curriculum to teach individuals to build, repair, and sell the bikes. As such, these bicycles provide an entrepreneurial opportunity to our partners, and allow those without access to transportation to benefit from increased economic opportunity, mobility, and productivity. With our developing partnerships, and the completion of a second prototype, Bandha Bikes plans to pilot this project in 2013.

Our Madagascar Biodigesters project completed two additional prototypes this year, and increased its partnership base, including collaborations with the University of Antananarivo, the Rotaract Club AVANA, and the Peace Corps Madagascar. The team is working with a talented group of student engineers at the University of Antananarivo to conduct a full-scale test in Madagascar of their most recent prototype. Baseline data from testing abroad will help gain further insight on the performance of these biodigesters, and provide further direction for the next design iteration. The team is also developing its educational, outreach, and business plans this coming year, and plans to pilot these biodigesters in various Malagasy communities. The biotechnology will help reduce the amount of indigenous deforestation that occurs so rapidly in Madagascar from those who burn their local forests for fire fuel for food preparation.

VPI has grown this last year. Our organization is now 40 members strong, who have collectively contributed over 10,000 hours toward project development, various media efforts, fundraising, and legal support in 2012. Through careful spending of less than $4,000 this year, the projects built a total of 6 new prototypes, sent 4 people overseas for research, hosted 2 fundraising events, developed 6 international partnerships, and established our first student chapter at the University of Michigan. I thank all of our members and our student help, for putting so much time and energy into our organization’s development, as well as maintaining their focus on empowering those who need it the most.

In 2013, VPI will concentrate on moving all projects from the prototype phase to piloting. This will be a big year for action as we continue to develop our educational and training programs, perfect our technologies, and grow as an organization. We hope to keep you informed with our progress.

As Hurricane Sandy ripped through our backyards this fall, leaving so many without homes, it reminds us that we are all human. We are susceptible to the cold, and we all need food and love to fill our bellies and hearts. It is in these times of adversity that we are reminded how very connected we are, by the thread of our existence and our need to survive and protect those around us. I am so honored to be working with extraordinary people who understand the importance of our basic needs, and our inherent need to do our part in this global community.

Think of a time when someone said or did something that brought you to action, and you were empowered to make a change in your life or for your loved ones. As no act is too small, we ask you today to think of how to be that positive force for someone else. Please follow the link below and help empower your world today.

www.vortport.org/give

The ambitious and worthy goals we have set for 2013 require your belief in what we strive to do. From the bottom of our hears, we thank you for your sustained encouragement and support.
Wishing you hope, happiness, and fulfillment in 2013!

Merry Walker

Executive Director, Vort Port International

Woman of Uganda: A Banda Bikes Assessment

Even though it was back in June, I still remember the familiar smell of burnt charcoal that filled my lungs as I stepped off plane and reacquainted myself with the beautiful land of Uganda.  It had been over a year, but I was finally back.   After a 27 hour journey, including a 12 hour layover in rainy London, the boldness of the Ugandan landscape was ever more stunning.  The lush leaves of the trees, the vibrant greens of the grass, and the incredible shades of reds and browns that blended into the soil all reminded me why Uganda is called “Africa’s Pearl”.   Upon arriving in Entebbe International Airport, I searched for my name in the sea of hand-written, cardboard signs welcoming the arriving passengers.   Through my blurred delirium of exhaustion, I finally found a sign that read: “We Welcome Song”. Jackson, my driver, greeted me with a smile that seemed all too familiar.  Of course!  Jackson was the same man who drove me from the airport just one year before.   But this time we weren’t strangers, and we happily caught up with our lives as we drove the 2 hour road to Jinja, Uganda.

With only seven days in-country to conduct a feasibility assessment for Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project, I made the best of the little things that would have otherwise driven me crazy – the scorching heat, the lack of clean drinking water, and most of all the aggressive mosquitos.   Those trivial things didn’t matter this time.   I was here for Banda Bikes, a Vort Port project which aims to train local Ugandans to build and sell their own bicycles constructed from locally-sourced bamboo.  Through these bicycles the endeavor hopes to provide disadvantaged populations, particularly women, with greater access to food, water, employment, education, healthcare, and ultimately a greater quality of life.   But in a country that continues to face strict gender norms, such that women are frowned upon for riding bicycles in some regions, implementing this project does not come without its fair share of obstacles.   Still, the benefits of providing bicycles to a community are astronomical, including the potential to increase a household income by 35% or more. [i]

Lukaya Village. Tree of Life Ministries school performance.

Throughout the 4 schools, 4 community-based organizations, and 8 village centers visited, every day was a new adventure.   While in Kibuye Village with Sharon Nyanjura, founder and director of Arise and Shine Uganda, community members shared their dreams of one day learning to build their own bicycles through the project.   Over and over again, the voices of villagers were translated to me, “we are here for you, we will be waiting for your return”.   Although words between us were rarely exchanged directly, our long glances to one another shared the same message, webale (thank you, in the local language).   “Thank you for allowing me into your community”, something I would think to myself throughout my entire journey.

With the support of Real Partners Uganda and Trees of Life Ministries in Lukaya, Uganda, I met brilliant students who shared their dreams of being doctors, lawyers, nurses, pilots, and teachers.   Among them was Iesha, who recognized the value of a bicycle.   She shared with me, “a bicycle is important to me because everywhere I can use a bicycle.  If I had a bicycle, I would use it to fetch water.”  Iesha was one of many female students at Trees of Life Ministries who could envision the asset of a bicycle in her life, despite the opposing gender norms of females riding bicycles in the surrounding community.

For decades it has been recognized by USAID and organizations alike, that women are a force that can transform an entire community.  We also recognize that “countries and companies will thrive if women are educated and engaged as fundamental pillars of the economy”. [ii]   Women continue to have incredible influences on their families and communities, both in developing and industrialized countries, yet the gender gap in equality persists around the globe, including Uganda. [iii]   With the hope of addressing gender inequality with the Banda Bikes project, the voices of women throughout the villages became louder than ever.

Song meeting with the women of Lwanda Village.

In Wakiso District with Katongole Issa of Nansana Children’s Center, I met a single-mother, Fausta.   With her husband having passed away years ago, she is now burdened with raising four children on her own.  With Fausta as the sole financial provider for her children, every day is a struggle.   In a small room which served as the living room, bedroom, and dining room for the entire family of five, I sat with Fausta as she shared her many hardships.   When sales at her potato stand are low, she may make as little as $0.42 a day (US currency), which is the entire cost of her journey back home.  On those rough days, Fausta brings no income home to support her family.

Despite my familiarity with living conditions in the developing world no article, textbook, or lecture can ever prepare someone for the pain and emotion evoked in the eyes of one who actually lives it.   It took a good measure of effort not to shed tears for Fausta as she shared her daily struggles with me.   Fausta reminds me of my own mother and the challenges she faced raising me and my two siblings alone.   Still, two words make the difference between Fausta’s story and that of my mother’s – Government Assistance.  For Fausta, and single-mothers like her, government assistance is a rarity in Uganda, almost non-existent.  I asked myself, “who is here to help these women?”  Across the globe the majority of those living on less than $1 a day are women, regardless of hours worked.   The opportunities for women to earn a living consistently fall short of their male counterparts. [iv], [v]

Nevertheless, as Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project further develops, we have in mind the amazing women throughout our partnering communities.  The project will continue to recognize the gender gap and aim to create opportunities for women to learn about, be involved, and eventually build their own bicycles just like their male neighbors.   Until our next visit to Uganda, I will remember fondly the children at Trees of Life Ministries who shared with me their aspirations, and the inspiring people in Lukaya who are waiting for our return.  But most of all, I will often think about Fausta and her beautiful children who remain resilient through their daily struggles, happy and hopeful to have learned about Banda Bikes. The Ugandan communities have helped me recognize the incredible opportunity that exists when local people are provided with support to make a difference in their own communities.  It is their motivation, endless hope, and inspiration which continue to drive Banda Bikes and the people of Vort Port International.  Until my next visit – webale.

Nansana Town. Song with Fausta, children, and friends.

This blog post was written by Song Nguyen, a member of Vort Port International and the project director for Banda Bikes.


[i] Sieber, N. Appropriate transport and rural development in Makete district, Tanzania. Journal of Transport Geography, 6(1). 1998.

[ii] Hausmann, R., Tyson, L., Zahidi, S. The global gender gap report 2011: Insight report. World Economic Forum.  Available at:  http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2011.pdf.

[iii] USAID. Gender equality and women’s empowerment. Retrieved from: http://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/gender-equality-and-womens-empowerment.

[iv] Murray, A. F. From Outrage to Courage. Common Courage Press. Monroe, ME; 1998.

[v] United Nations. Gender and Human Development. Human Development Report. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr1995/chapters/.

Rooftops: The Urban Backyard

As a city dweller, if there’s one concept that never escapes me, it’s space. There’s so much of it, yet it’s never plentiful. Distances are vast, and if you live in Brooklyn, your friends in the Bronx might as well live in a different state, but personal space is hardly in high supply. Our kitchens are installed in the corners of living rooms almost as an afterthought; finding free parking takes hours of toil and strife; and we measure our yards (if we have them) not by acres but by square feet.

For this reason, I never cease to be amazed by the amount of eminently viable space that goes unused throughout the urban landscape. As more and more Americans flock to urban centers, our need for a paradigm shift in how we treat city living is becoming increasingly pertinent. And while urbanites continue to moan about their cramped quarters, they continue to fail to look up!

If you live in a densely populated city, and you don’t have a garden, and you’re wondering how I could even wonder if you do have a garden, then ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does the building I occupy have a “conventional” rooftop?
2. If yes, do I have access to said rooftop?
3. If yes again, is it host to a whole lot of tar paper and ventilation pipes?

If this sounds like your rooftop situation, then there’s cause to celebrate: you’re in possession of a slice of the urban landscape’s greatest untapped resource.

When I first moved to Brooklyn from a city with considerably more space, I instantly came to rely on my apartment building’s roof as a place to get away from the din and stress of the busy city streets. From my roof, I could enjoy being outdoors while still able to have a phone conversation or read a book, all within a few steps (or, as was my case, ladder rungs) from my front door. My building’s roof became a much needed replacement for the back yard that I longed for but lacked. Yet what most astonished me about my roof was that no one from the rest of the block seemed to know it was there. What went unnoticed by everyone else became the largest back yard I’d ever had!

I now have my own roof in Brooklyn, and I’ve taken my roof dwelling to the next level. With a modest $50 inventment, I’ve developed a humble little rooftop garden. And for a guy who’s pretty green in the gardening department, the greenery on my vacant outdoor space has thrived. With a few minutes of research, I found plenty of vegetables that do well in direct sunlight, and besides their daily watering, nature has done the rest.

The few vegetables I planted this season won’t be slashing my grocery shopping budget by a whole lot come harvest. But rooftop improvements in the city are some of the easiest and most productive projects one can undertake to make city living more sustainable while beautifying the concrete jungle. They can keep your building cooler in the summer and help lower your energy bills. Plants improve air quality and mood, and can provide food. Plus, maintaining a garden dozens of feet above the bustling street provides at least a few moments of peace and tranquility every morning.

There’s a very real phenomenon in cities called the Urban Heat Island Effect, which describes the noticeable increase in temperature you experience in cities compared to surrounding rural areas. Dark surfaces, such as concrete, asphalt, and rooftops absorb sunlight and radiate heat – the reason why the sidewalk often feels “hot enough to fry an egg”, but the grass in the back yard is always comfortable. If cities as a whole learn to promote the widespread transformation of rooftops into gardens and yards, rather than vast, desolate heat traps, our cities will become cooler, greener, and healthier. Energy consumption and pollution can both be reduced as our roof tops become the back yards of the city – and, with a bit of elbow grease, the envy of our friends in suburbia!

It’s frustrating to see so much space go to waste in the city – but it’s equally as liberating to discover that it’s easy to do for yourself. So aim to set an example for your neighbors! There’s no better way to contribute to a positive movement than by throwing your next great tiki party on your beautified roof yard and inviting the neighbors. The greatest boon to progress is proving to others that it’s fun.

In closing, I quote The Drifters:

When I come home feeling tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet
I get away from the hustling crowd
and all that rat race noise down on the street
On the roof, the only place I know
where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up on the roof

Happy gardening,

Joe

This blog post was written by Josef Zook, a member of Vort Port International’s Media Team. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.

Think of Their Future!

I recently caught the R train at Prince Street in Soho on a rainy summer afternoon. The subway system and its strange ecosystem of commuters, tourists, homeless, and wildcards is hardly phasing to my wife and I anymore. We moved to Brooklyn three years ago from our humble (and quiet) home state of Michigan, but we have acclimated well to our new environment. On this particular train was a wildcard I’ve grown accustomed to seeing underground. The middle-aged man standing in the center of the car, with his worn jeans, t-shirt and backpack, felt the need to enlighten his fellow passengers. With a voice tinged with disparity, his exhausted red eyes beamed at us strangers, and the man began to stress aloud about controlled media, big business, and corrupt politicians. Then, specifically, he spoke urgently about the practice of fracking and its dangers to our water sources.

“Wake up! Wake up people”, he shouted. He tried to open a dialogue with those around him, to no avail.

With slumped shoulders, he tugged awkwardly at his grey ponytail. “I don’t like to go this route, but I see a few children on this train. If not for yourselves, can you at least think of them? Think of their future!”

* * *

Two weeks prior to this train ride, I came home from a long 12-hour day at the warehouse. My wife, Meggie, has been feeling sick and achy with a long list of symptoms that are foreign to her. We suspected she might be pregnant. My mind was a blur at work all day, constantly shifting from work to her and the impending pregnancy test we were going to take that evening. When I finally walked through the door after 9pm that evening, Meggie jumped up from the couch. Her only greeting was a sheepish smile. I knew, immediately, that she had already taken the test.

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” I asked. Her face went red and I knew it was true. “Holy shit.”

My daily thought process hasn’t been the same ever since. We are currently 8 weeks into the pregnancy, we have seen the heart beat, and we notice every baby and toddler in passing through the course of every day. As a father-to-be I am very excited and, strangely, very confident. Being entirely new to the world of parenting, we are devouring one baby book after another. We are pouring through online forums and even interviewing midwives. Overall, I am feeling very good about being a father.

* * *

That is, until I think of that man on the R train. Think of their future! The line struck me unexpectedly. He held up a handful of pamphlets for anyone interested in what he was talking about. My hand, almost involuntarily, shot up in the air. Grateful that anyone was listening, he rushed over and handed me the literature. However, I didn’t get off that easy. Suddenly his best friend, he began to embark on a one-sided conversation with me about the practice of fracking (already know it) and the petitions I should sign (signed them all). The train came to my stop, so I quickly thanked the man and dodged around him for the closing door.

Think of their future! The line continues to nag at me. In fact, it may be my greatest fear in raising children of my own. What kind of a world am I raising them in? I sometimes view the world as a place with an overwhelming vastness of problems (hence my participation in Vort Port International). But with as many problems as I recognize in the world, what problems will my children inherit? That is what scares me. At times, these broad questions seem utterly and hopelessly beyond my control (and as a soon-to-be parent, I don’t like it).

​Thinking of their future, my role and work within Vort Port International has taken on new meaning. My reasons for nonprofit participation have new context. It is my hope that this nagging fear will evolve into unmovable purpose in Vort Port International and my role as a global citizen seeking sustainability for all.

written by
Patrick Kwiatkowski, VPI Media Director

Mother’s Day

People have asked me what the motivation was behind starting Vort Port International (VPI). There were a number of factors including past experiences and lessons learned from working on philanthropic projects that lacked elements of social and financial sustainability. One instance, a team of people had designed and fundraised for an orphan care center in Malawi, but the work was not maintained due to lack of training and education of the members of the community. It taught me that connecting with the community and teaching them useful skills was crucial to the long-term success of the project. Lessons like that help shape how VPI currently makes decisions. And, underlying all that, the creation of VPI may stem from my experience of being part of a home that was given a chance to grow.

The majority of my early childhood was spent living in low-income, government-subsidized housing in Michigan. I remember eating free school lunches, receiving grocery bags of staple consumer goods, dumpster-diving for any furniture we could find, going to my mother’s workplace because we could not afford a babysitter. My mother, Yuyang Ye, would wake up before the sun and commute to work, and she would stay up until two o’clock in the morning to study, translating her biology textbook from English to Chinese word by word.

Merry with her brother and Mom, 1988.

I recall these things and, above all else, I was happy and immensely loved. Life was focused on family, appreciation for having one another, and simple daily necessities. My mother would always say that the value of a person is not in what they own but in who they are. We did our best to make it by, while trying to live virtuously. In times of need, though, a strong network of people offered to us what we could not provide for ourselves. Free after-school programming at the local community center offered a babysitting service to allow my mother to work more hours. English as a Second Language tutored me in English, something my mother had not yet mastered. Family friends would generously take my brother and I to museums to help enrich our young minds, revealing an entire world to explore. Libraries offered a second home to further nurture our curiosity. Summer camps at the YMCA engaged children in team sports and taught us a strong appreciation for the outdoors.

I look back on a childhood full of wonders and excitement, and I have both my mother and my community to thank. Through perseverance and determination, my mother finished her Master’s degree and our family made its way into the middle-class. The support that my family received allowed us to succeed and, as a result, I strive to provide similar opportunities for others in need.

A realization grew within me as I began traveling more. When I visited Madagascar there were families content with what little they had, living simply and within their means. I realized that people, regardless of background, all want the same thing — parents want to provide for their children, children work hard to carry on legacies, and communities work together to help one another. The majority of families share a willingness to work hard and learn new things, if given the chance. Most of the world’s people are relegated to lifestyles less prone to meaningful opportunity. By providing community outlets to learn new skills they otherwise may not have a chance to learn, the less fortunate can make their lives infinitely better. And perhaps this engendered sense of greater giving will be paid forward time and time again. These personal beliefs inspired the creation of VPI, and they continue to be the centerfold of the work that we do. VPI empowers community members to provide for themselves a sustainable lifestyle, by teaching them important skills for long-term success. VPI functions by a group of young professionals who care deeply about bringing out the best in the people through smart, sustainable technologies and programs. And we understand that our contribution does not stop at the individuals we help; we’re passing on lifelong skills that can change entire communities for the better. And when their children grow older, they can continue to better the world one generation at a time.

Malagasy mother with her baby. Visit to Madagascar, 2010.

When speaking with VPI colleagues, many of them come from similar backgrounds. Their families and communities influenced their decision to become a global citizen and contribute to something beyond themselves. We would like to recognize Mother’s day, just last Sunday, and honor the love and dedication that our mothers have provided us throughout the years. Thank you for being there for us, always giving your support every step of the way. It was you and the many chances that we were offered that allowed us to grow into the people we are today.

Connecting Sustainable Transportation and Access to Clean Water

Our global population has already hit almost 7 billion, and is expected to increase dramatically over the next few decades. Consequently, one vital source of life has been and will continue to be compromised: water. Our global water system has been impaired by heavy industrial and agricultural use, ineffective water management systems, and inadequate infrastructure for rainwater harvesting. These trends, along with global climate change, will lead to major challenges in meeting the world’s water demands both in developing and developed countries. Specifically, climate change is exacerbating the issue of water scarcity and clean water. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and changes in humidity, salinity, and wind have been linked to poor water quality and an increase in waterborne pathogens.

It has become apparent that water scarcity and access to clean water is one of the most important challenges that developing countries, such as Uganda, face. In fact, the UN’s seventh millennium development goal (MDG) includes “revers[ing] the loss of environmental resources” and “reduc[ing] by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 2.6 billion people or 50% of the developing world lack access to a basic “improved” latrine which inhibits sanitation, and 1.1 billion people lack access to a source of clean drinking water. 80% of those lacking access to safe drinking water reside in rural areas.  As a result, morbidity and mortality rates are increasing; approximately 1.6 million people die due to diarrheal diseases and other waterborne diseases (e.g., cholera) due to limited access to clean water and sanitation. 90% of the 1.6 million people are children under the age of 5.

The problem of access to clean water is evident in the target village of VPI’s Bamboo Bike’s project: Kibuye Village, Uganda. The village is located in the Kamuli District in North Eastern Kamuli on the shores of the Victoria Nile. Kibuye has an estimated population of 60,000 people. Their livelihood is dependent on subsistence farming and barter trade within the village.  VPI’s potential partner organization, Arise and Shine Uganda, has documented the problems of villagers through a blog for the past couple of years.  Arise and Shine Uganda is a non-profit organization based in Jinja, Uganda focused on sustainable development through education.  As I read through the numerous entries written by various members of Arise and Shine recounting their own experiences, one message was consistent throughout: the people of the village have very little access to water and electricity.  A member wrote in December 2011: “The conditions in the village were very basic, as was to be expected.  There was no running water or electricity, and thus no sewage or apparent irrigation systems.”  Another member noted recently in March 2012 that there was “no water and no power” when they visited Kibuye, and said that they went to a well to get water.  Arise and Shine has really highlighted the source of the problem: the village initially relied on one public borehole for clean drinking water.  However, with just one source of water for 60,000 people, long lines would form everyday by villagers so they could provide clean water for their families.  Naturally, many grew tired of waiting, and turned to the nearby Nile for water, which only resulted in diarrheal and waterborne illnesses.  Furthermore, Arise and Shine noted that the village has one school with just two classrooms, accommodating around 600 children.  Children who get sick from unsafe drinking water are likely to miss school, which cause them to fall behind their peers.  This is partially reflective of the staggering statistic Arise and Shine reported: 80% of Ugandans over the age of 15 are illiterate.

In June, members from Vort Port International (VPI), including myself, will be traveling to Jinja, Uganda to conduct a feasibility assessment for VPI’s Bamboo Bike’s project. Last summer, VPI’s very own Project Lead, Song Nguyen, went to Jinja and worked with Restless Development, conducting research on youth-friendly sexual reproductive health services.  During her time in Jinja, she also volunteered with Arise and Shine.  From interacting with local community members for 6 weeks, Song found that most people in many districts of Uganda lack access to transportation.  In fact, one community member specifically mentioned to Song that a bike would prove extremely useful for their daily needs. When Song returned to the US, she was determined to provide her friends and local community members in Ugandan villages with a sustainable source of transportation.  Inspired by her experiences, she created the Bamboo Bikes project under VPI. This project is focused on empowering local community members in Uganda to build and sell bamboo bikes to others in their community, meanwhile providing greater access to basic resources through their bicycles.  The project will improve the business acumen of Ugandans, help them to gain practical skills, and ultimately develop a sustainable business.  Moreover, the bike itself will provide Ugandans with an environmentally friendly mode of transportation.  The bike may serve to improve their economic opportunity, increase their access to healthcare, increase their mobility enabling them travel to nearby cities to explore other opportunities and expand their businesses, and increase their access to basic necessities, including water.

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Song Nguyen visiting with in-school youth in rural Uganda.

It is clear that access to clean water is critical for the people of Kibuye Village, and many others across Uganda.  Efforts to create sustainable, affordable, effective, and applicable solutions to this problem are needed across Uganda and much of the developing world.  The benefits of investing in the problem outweighs the costs; WHO estimates that meeting MDG goal 7 could prevent 470,000 deaths attributed to lack of clean drinking water and sanitation, and could result in an extra 320 million productive working days every year.  For the children and families of Kibuye, this could mean a better education due to more consistent attendance, improved literacy, a greater ability to compete with their peers in their own district and in nearby urban areas such as Jinja, and allowing both women and men to lead more productive lives. Most importantly, it would mean children will have a greater chance of survival, lead healthier lives, and will be more likely to see their futures through.  It is our duty to help empower others to obtain what is their human right: access to water, sanitation, transportation, and education, among others. It is my hope that VPI can play an integral part in empowering the people of Kibuye, starting with providing villagers with access to transportation.  Moreover, as women and sometimes children are typically responsible for fetching water for their families and spend considerable time doing so, they may find the bikes useful for finding other sources of clean water that may not have been accessible otherwise. Bamboo bikes may also allow them to more easily transport water back to their families.  Most importantly, villagers may no longer need to rely as much on the unsafe waters of the Nile to fetch water for their families, which has been detrimental to the health of so many.

VPI’s members have started to brainstorm ways to successfully address clean water issues at our project sites, including Kibuye. The technologies for improving access to clean water that have already been developed seem endless; the key to success is implementation. VPI’s trip to Kibuye in June will allow us to better understand the problems that these villagers face, and develop and implement culturally sound, applicable, and affordable solutions to the challenges they face every day.

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To learn more about VPI’s Bamboo Bikes Project please visit: www.vortport.org/our-projects/bamboo-bikes, and check out pictures of the bikes our members have designed and constructed on VPI’s facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/vortport).  If you would like to get involved with VPI’s projects or have any questions, please feel free to contact me at shivangi@vortport.org.

The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.” — Helen Keller

Shivangi Khargonekar, the author of this blog post, is the Internal Director of Vort Port International. Shivangi recently graduated with a Master of Public Health in Environmental Health from Emory University. She will be joining Deloitte Consulting as a full-time consultant in their federal practice; she will be a consultant for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Shivangi currently resides in Atlanta, GA.

Patz, J.A., et al. (2000). The Potential Health Impacts of Climate Variability and Change for the United States: Executive Summary of the Report of the Health Sector of the U.S. National Assessment. Environmental Health Perspectives. 108(4): 367-376.

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability. United Nations Development Programme website. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://web.undp.org/mdg/goal7.shtml

Health through safe drinking water and basic sanitation. (2012). World Health Organization website.  Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/mdg1/en/index.html

Arise and Shine Uganda. (2012). Arise and Shine Blog. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://www.ariseandshineug.blogspot.com/

Koolwal, Gayatri and Dominique van de Walle. Access to water, women’s work and child outcomes. (2010).  World Bank website. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://water.worldbank.org/publications/access-water-womens-work-and-child-outcomes

The Ethics of Sustainable Living

It is of notable interest that in this day and age, one need not search too far in any news source or information outlet to find stories about our environment. We live in a world where decades of pollution, over-consumption, and widespread environmental destruction has left us feeling in a state of unyielding peril. While millions at the base of the economic pyramid already suffer the very real consequences of humanity’s mark on the earth, those near the top are faced with the constant looming omen that, if we maintain our current habits, we will very well spell our own demise. It is not a new phenomenon, and yet many feel that we are only negligibly closer to reaching real solutions to what will likely prove to be our greatest threat: humanity’s continued inability to regulate its own actions for the sake of its very self-preservation.

As a society, we as Americans have certainly come a long way in terms of recognizing our own patterns of consumption and doing, as a whole, the bare minimum to remedy our carbon footprint. Today’s youth appreciate the impermanence of the world’s resources and care about a sustainable earth more than any other generations have been wont to do. “Going green” is a familiar colloquialism within the American vernacular, and the average person has a desire to do their part in making the world a greener, lusher, healthier place for current and future generations to live.

The greatest problem developed societies face is that they shall forever want to have their cake and eat it too. Of course no rational human being wants to destroy the only home they have to leave to their children; but if not destroying that home involves a drastic shift in the level of luxury to which they’ve grown accustomed, the human tendency is to rationalize one’s own destructive behavior. Essentially, the average “privileged” Westerner is willing to do anything short of cramping their own style to save the environment.

Additionally, our society struggles with a feeling of hopelessness surrounding the destruction of the atmosphere, water supplies, and natural resources. In a society that rewards greed, we are faced with countless corporations and mammoth forces exploiting the earth on such a large scale that even our most earnest, concerted efforts can feel meaningless in comparison.

But hopelessness, even if warranted, is unproductive. Rather than feel defeated by a system of consumption that lacks a long term strategy, we as creative thinkers must strive to change the paradigm in which we view our own existence on the face of the earth. We are faced with challenges of cultural relativism, short-sightedness by those at the top whose greed is blinding, and habits of consumption and resource allocation that is reaching a tipping point. What ought we do?

A good place to start may be one of the primary universalities of the human condition: our desire as creatures to care for our own young. Despite all our real or perceived differences, we are all compelled to care for our offspring. It cannot be otherwise, for a group that does not value its young would not long survive. Regardless of the culture, a great deal of thought and concern goes into raising healthy children, so as to carry on the legacy of the culture from whence they are borne. Children that are not cared for are undoubtedly the irrational exception to the rule.

Following this logic, it is not unreasonable to consider the folly of stubbornly keeping our heads in the sand while we know doing so will leave a barren and unforgiving world for future generations of our own. One can liken a desperate and outworn reliance on poisonous, non-renewable fuels to a drug addiction: it is difficult to see its destructive potential without a comparative example of an infinitely cleaner, safer, and healthier alternative that results in the same intended end. And this is precisely what we as a society must choose to cure ourselves – the skewed perception that we are somehow giving something up by turning away from fossil fuels and destructive agricultural techniques. We have been programmed to believe that we have it as best as it gets by a system that vehemently opposes change.

It is not so! We have only just begun to realize how antiquated and imperfect our consumption habits are in an age of unyielding scientific and technological discovery. We have at our fingertips the tools to make the world a truly sustainable place for mankind and the rest of the world’s inhabitants – we must simply embrace change. Our stubborn, self-willed exile from the wonders of sustainable energy solutions has gone on long enough. A shift in the collective consciousness must take place. Only then will we be able to set a true example for the rest of the world.

There is a construct in the philosophical study of ethics that encapsulates the potential solution to our greatest dilemma. Utilitarianism is a theory of ethics that suggests that the morality of any act depends on acting in a way that will result in the most “utility”, over all. It indicates that an act is right if it is in accordance with the correct moral rules. The correct set of moral rules is the set that, if always followed by everyone, would result in the greatest possible amount of happiness.

We must remain aware of what actions we take will result in the greatest possible amount of happiness. And for us to continue to exploit the earth in our same old ways will simply never result in a net surplus of happiness. This earth will repel us, it will purge us from its existence if we refuse to heed her warnings. We won’t take the earth with us; we simply will no longer exist within the earthly realm.

As alarming as it sounds to say so, my words do not represent new or novel concepts. I close with the following verse from Ecclesiastes 1,4:

Men go and come, but Earth abides.


Josef K. Zook

Earth Day – The Big Picture

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In May of 1969, pilots Eugene Cernan, John Young and Commander Thomas P. Stafford set flight in the 4th American manned flight into space.  Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the moon landing to come, a test of low approach orbit to calibrate the descent guidance system to within 1-nautical-mile needed for a landing.  The ascent module, the vessel two astronauts lifted off in after visiting the lunar surface, was short-fueled on purpose for this particular mission.

“A lot of people thought about the kind of men we were” pilot Cernan said.   “ ‘Don’t give those guys an opportunity to land, because they might!'”

The crew maintained their mission and flew several successful test orbits around the moon.  The mission insignia was that of a large, three-dimensional Roman numeral X sitting on the moon’s surface, in Stafford’s words, “to show that we had left our mark.”  The mark they made, however, was more profoundly felt on their home planet Earth.  Apollo 10 carried with it the first colored television camera into space.  Some of the images displayed the whole of the Earth, all of its round glory in the blackness of space.  The pictures brought back from this inspired period of explorers sparked a broad public fascination with the bigger picture of things.  The long and timeless dialogue about human life grew broader and more vexing in 1969, spurring incomprehensible thoughts and dreams about the grand uniqueness of Earth in its vast loneliness of space.  For John McConnell, the pictures encapsulated a vision of one singular home that every human being must share.  After seeing the images in print that year, McConnell suddenly had a visual brand that represented every social and environmental cause he ever pursued.

John McCollen was born in 1915 in Davis City, Iowa, but didn’t remain there long.  His evangelical parents traveled about, their family living out of a modified van.  Despite the lack of structured education, the vagrant boy showed early promise and visited libraries regularly across the country, from the Southwest desert to the snowy Great Lakes region.  Early in his adult life, McCollen served as business manager of the Nobell Research Foundation in Los Angeles.  The laboratory responsible for developing thermosetting plastics hardly seems like the humble beginnings of Earth’s most prolific advocate.  Still, his interest in religion, science, and peace propelled him to seek solutions as his concern for ecology grew.  Even during his time at the Foundation, after greatly considering their impact on nature, the team successfully developed plastics made from walnut shells.

John McCollen made a Roman numeral X of his own on October 31, 1957, just a few weeks after Earth witnessed its first artificial satellite, Sputnik.  McCollen wrote an editorial for the Toe Valley View entitled, “Make Our Satellite a Symbol of Hope”.  The article called for peaceful cooperation in the exploration of space in the wake of domestic violence and international tension.  The small-town editorial from North Carolina was reprinted in hundreds of newspapers across the country and led to the founding of the Star of Hope organization.  The foundation aimed to engender international collaboration in space expedition.  After moving their publication to California, McConnell and his editorial partner, Earling Toness, urged the White House to sponsor a joint venture with both American and Soviet astronauts.  President Kennedy supported the idea and, later, President Nixon obtained agreement between the conflicting nations.

McCollen went on to lead a multitude of social causes and ecological movements in the decades to come.  The tall, enthusiastic man directed the efforts of Meals for Millions, feeding thousands of starving Hong Kong refugees.  He worked tirelessly on the Minute for Peace program, a radio broadcast that collected conversations and interviews from some of the world’s brightest and powerful advocates of peace and diplomacy.  As concern grew over the mistreatment of lands and oceans, he conceived the idea of Earth Day.  It was proposed at a UNESCO conference in San Francisco to be held on the vernal equinox, a time when the sun is shared equally between the Southern and Northern hemispheres of the planet.  Not long after, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson began promoting an annual Environmental Teach-In, and proposed it be celebrated around April 20.  McCollen and Senator Nelson vied against one another for control of the event, and confusion over a decided date carried on for over a decade.  Still, the two entities progressed forward to make many contributions to the annual celebration.  McCollen created an Earth Day Flag to represent all peoples, a silk screen of white (clouds) and blue (ocean).  The original flag had no forms or colors to represent land, territory, or borders.  But then, flipping through the pages of Life Magazine in 1969, McCollen saw the profound images taken from space, as though the moon itself aimed a camera at Earth and snapped a mug shot for us all.  A new Earth Day flag was created using the image of Earth as seen from space, and it is still flown today when Earth Day is recognized annually at the U.N.  It is the only acknowledged flag that represents all people of the world.

After taking time to be with his wife, Anna, and their two children, the self-educated man from Iowa (and everywhere else) formed the Earth Society Foundation.  The organization was put in place to promote the Earth Day Flag and, more importantly, the Earth Trustees.  The idea came to McCollen while sitting in a restaurant in Texas, and he immediately transcribed the idea in writing.  Upon a used placemat he decreed:

Let each person choose to be a Trustee of Planet Earth, each in their own way, seeking to think, choose and act in ways that will protect, preserve and increase Earth’s natural bounty, ever seeking fair benefits for all Earth’s people and for its creatures great and small.

– John McConnell, Earth Trustee Challenge, early 1970s

It is likely that John McConnell is not a household name today, nor was his name back then.  Yet, his message is farther-reaching than most, having rallied family and friends, educated thousands of students and fellow citizens, enlightened senators and representatives, allied with U.N. members, and challenged world leaders to do better by their people and environment.  Today, John McConnell is well into his 90s and is still a restless advocate for environmental awareness and care of our planet.  He and his wife, having spent the majority of their marriage in Brooklyn, NY, later moved to Colorado.  Anna insisted that her husband walk a quarter-mile every day.  Most days, McConnell sits at a small desk in a second bedroom they made into a quaint office, working on the computer and telephone 4 to 8 hours a day in order to further his message.  Days before his 90th birthday in 2004, at the start of an interview with his biographer, McCollen prayed.

“Dear Heavenly Father, we pray that, as I reach near the end of my sojourn here, whatever your mission for me is that I might clearly understand how I can make a difference in changing the global state of mind and providing a way to continue the human adventure.”

We all would do well to remember John McCollen, not for an annual day of awareness and appreciation, but for his unending effort to preserve and protect the little dot in the cosmos we all share and call home.  Let Earth Day be not just a passing day of environmental awareness or beautifying the Earth.  McCollen’s concern for the Earth was not just on Earth Day, but every single day.  Let this day act as a reminder of the continual, long-term efforts needed from every global citizen.  Let this day be one to inaugurate new Earth Trustees, become one yourself, and enact individual resolutions to change our daily habits for the betterment of each other and our planet.  It is important that, on this day, everyone take a step back and look at the bigger picture, as John McCollen once did, and carry it forth everyday thereafter.

Patrick Kwiatkowski

Vort Port International, Media Director

Vort Port International at CGI U 2012

Members of Vort Port International (VPI)’s Bamboo Bikes and Biodigester teams attended the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference 2012, held at the George Washington University in Washington, DC from March 30-April 1, 2012. The Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) is a platform launched by President Clinton to engage the next generation of leaders in solving some of the most pressing international issues of our time. Each year, CGI U hosts a meeting where students, nonprofit organizations and topic experts discuss their commitments to make a difference in the areas of: Education, Environment & Climate Change, Peace & Human Rights, Poverty Alleviation, and Public Health.

Song Nguyen and Adam Coile of the Bamboo Bikes Project, and Rahul Mitra of the Biodigester Project had the opportunity to attend plenary sessions featuring President Clinton, Madeline Albright, Usher, Jon Stewart and many other influential individuals. Moreover, CGI U offered them a space to network with 1,200 motivated students/young professionals, all working to make a positive impact in the world.  As a prerequisite to attend the CGI U meeting, Song, Adam and Rahul had to develop their own Commitments to Action: a specific plan of action that addresses a pressing development issue. CGI U then provides guidance to these projects through mentoring and promotes networking with others working on similar challenges or in the same area of the world.

During the event, Song and Adam presented VPI’s projects at the CGI U Exchange, a forum for students and youth organizations to showcase their commitments. This allowed them to promote VPI’s current Bamboo Bikes, Biodigester and Solar Lamps project, while exploring partnerships and networking with other CGI U attendees. Also during the event, Rahul had the distinct opportunity of attending a luncheon with President Clinton, where he answered questions specific to the projects represented at CGI U.

CGI U is an annual event that takes place at different university campuses each year.  Vort Port International members plan to attend subsequent CGI events in the coming years. You can find out more about CGI U here at their website: http://www.cgiu.org

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