Tag Archive | sustainability

Partners Both Home and Abroad Help Advance VPI’s BioD Project

Over the years, Vort Port International’s BioD project has truly developed into a partnership between social entrepreneurs and students in the U.S. and in Madagascar. What started off with a handful of engineers and business specialists here in the States has evolved into a team of dedicated students and professionals with a wide range of expertise in both countries.

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BioD strives to implement human-centric solutions to pertinent issues in Madagascar, and is working with two outstanding partners there. Over the past two years, BioD has been collaborating with engineering students at The University of Antananarivo, who have been involved in the assessment, design, and prototyping phases of the project. And within the University’s Institut pour la Maitrise de l’energie, five engineering students seeking their masters degree have constructed a prototype of the BioD and are currently testing the device. All the materials used by this team as well as the inputs for testing come from Madagascar and will provide us with benchmark data essential for scaling up. Over the next two years, as the BioD project progresses to the implementation phase, these students will play a crucial role in the deployment of the biodigester technologies in rural Malagasy communities. Through this partnership we are promoting local knowledge and skill development that will outlast the BioD Project and hopefully inspire other initiatives to improve the standard of living in Madagascar.

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The BioD team has also partnered with the Rotaract Club AVANA, which is based in the capital city of Antananarivo and whose members are young professionals with backgrounds ranging from finance to marketing to information technology. Their focus is to give back to their local community through education and empowerment projects. The Rotaract Club has assessed rural communities in Madagascar where the BioD will be prototyped, which consisted of a needs analysis and a survey of locally available materials, and has initiated a partnership between the BioD Project and our partner communities. The Rotaract Club members are also assisting with the education plan of the project, which seeks to deliver environmental and human health information to community stakeholders.

And closer to home, in September 2013 BioD launched a partnership with the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. This partnership will add the support of students and faculty from their Global Human Development program. The Georgetown team has already submitted the BioD concept for a social enterprise competition through the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA). Faculty members with decades of development expertise will serve as mentors on the project.

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These partnerships and the ones we hope to develop in the future will ensure that the solutions we deliver are culturally appropriate and sustainable in the long run. BioD aims to spark a culture of entrepreneurship in Madagascar that will last beyond our project and take on the challenges of tomorrow.

This blog post was written by Rahul Mitra, VPI BioD Project Co-Director

VPI Member Spotlight: Patrick Kwiatkowski and Joe Zook

PK and Zook

History is full of dynamic duos — two talented individuals who find that they can accomplish more by working together. Lewis and Clark. Woodward and Bernstein. Aykroyd and Belushi. Kwiatkowski and Zook. Never heard of the last pair? Well you will, or at least you’ll soon know of their work covering Vort Port International’s (VPI) efforts to enable low-income communities globally to gain access to basic necessities through education, training, and innovation of sustainable technology-based solutions.

VPI’s media team members Patrick Kwiatkowski and Joe Zook both grew up in northern Michigan — Kwiatkowski in the tiny town of Cheboygan, Zook in the even tinier town of Reed City. Their paths crossed when they both were students at Grand Valley State University, having been drawn to video production for similar reasons — each wanted to use storytelling as a way to create social change.

“I find it rewarding and invigorating to survive in a natural environment with only the most essential tools,” Zook explains. “But, perhaps paradoxically, I’ve also always been fascinated with media and creating a record of events that can be engineered to tell a story. I eventually developed an interest in combining the two.”

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During college Zook had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout China, shooting documentary and anthropology footage of people operating in an environment far removed from the “modern” world of technology and luxuries, and much more reliant on immediately available natural resources. Traversing through the Himalayas and observing the unelaborate lifestyles of small rural communities helped cement Zook’s interest in exploring the ultimate simplicity of human existence through the complicated technological medium of digital video.

Kwiatkowsk also studied film/video production in college, and found that while he enjoyed producing student work in the film program, he was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the industry itself, finding it to be aggressive, self-important, and wasteful. Wanting to explore film as a means of social discourse and public good, he switched his emphasis to nonfiction media and produced two short documentaries as well as promotional material for the United Way of Ottawa County before graduating.

After college both friends ended up in Brooklyn, working in various types of media production. One day Kwiatkowski received a call from Merry Walker, a friend of a friend, who was looking for a volunteer to produce media content for the new nonprofit she had recently co-founded. Kwiatkowski became the media director for VPI, producing video content for the organization and its projects. He soon recruited Zook to help produce promotional content for each project, utilizing footage shot overseas by other VPI members as well as content produced domestically.

“Joining up with VPI was a no-brainer for us,” Zook shares. “Developing media for an organization that supports renewable and sustainable energy initiatives for the base of the economic pyramid was precisely the opportunity that we were both looking for to contribute our skills and passion for media to a cause that mirrored both of our own personal credos.”

Since joining VPI, the team has produced promotional videos domestically for the organization, as well as provided opinions and insight from a media-minded perspective. They also shared some valuable “training” advice (as well as comic relief) during a series of videos leading up to VPI’s EmpoweRun 5K fundraiser last spring.

PK pic

“The case is made overseas, and the projects are welcomed by those we’re aiming to help. It’s now time for these projects to make their case domestically, and that is where Joe and I come in,” says Kwiatkowski. He is currently working on a live-action spot shot in Washington, D.C., which showcases the prototype bamboo bike in use for Bandha Bikes, a project based in Uganda. And Zook, with the help of artist Valerie Light, is producing a short animation piece introducing the BioD project, based in Madagascar. Both are moving quickly to finish promotional material that can help raise much-needed funds for these two projects, and afterwards they will refocus their efforts on a new spot promoting the organization as a whole.

“Working full-time elsewhere, and spread between other video projects, it can be difficult to find the time to produce enough worthy content for an organization doing so much,” Kwiatkowski admits. The team often relies on the footage shot by other members during their assessments overseas (usually on their smartphones), creating some production challenges. In the future, hopefully there will be funds in the budget for them to travel abroad and document first-hand VPI’s trials, tribulations, and successes in order to better tell the organization’s story as a nonprofit and promote the causes of each project.

“It would be a thrill and an honor to produce content hand-in-hand with the people we work with on the ground overseas, and I’m sure one day we’ll get there,” says Kwiatkowski. “Until then, we are happy to do what we can here in the U.S. Producing content with little to work with puts us in a situation that demands creativity. I like to think Joe and I are up to the challenge.”

Kwiatkowski became a first-time dad in July and hopes to impart on his daughter the importance of being a global citizen, and to do one’s part in a world increasingly stretched thin.

Zook couldn’t agree more. “Ultimately, my goal for this organization is to establish and sustain an active, relatable, and provocative media presence that educates, sparks interest, encourages the public to engage with our organization, and inspires them to utilize their own skillsets to contribute to good causes within and outside of their own communities.”

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

Our Honorary Founding Members

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When Vort Port International (VPI) was conceptualized and incorporated in January 2010 I was fortunate to have the help of five remarkable co-founders: Ellen Faulkner (formerly Creal), Phillip Dixon, David Yeung, Paul Jawlik, and Marianna Oykhman. VPI derived its name from the words “vortex” and “portal,” which conveyed our mission of bringing people, resources, energy, and ideas together to solve fundamental global problems through technology and entrepreneurship. The organization quickly gained followers and members interested in working towards this cause.

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The volunteers who joined soon after VPI’s incorporation truly helped to fill in the gap left as some of the founding members moved on to new endeavors. The hard work and dedication of these members helped shape the organization into what it is today. Being an organization comprised entirely of volunteers, most of the members are in school, have jobs, or both. It takes an extra something to be able to help run a nonprofit organization in addition to a multitude of other responsibilities, but these passionate members stuck around through our ups and downs, squeezing in meetings between classes, on the way to lunch, and late into the night. They used personal vacation time and funds to travel on behalf of VPI. We bounced ideas around on how we could improve, constantly sought feedback from experienced advisors, and worked to continuously improve our operational and project development models.

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By the time that VPI officially received its 501(c)(3) status in February 2011, we had completed our first project and had a membership of 20 individuals. Over the last several years, our portfolio has blossomed into three projects and our membership has doubled, with our scope expanded to three countries outside of the U.S. and our volunteers based in seven cities worldwide. We’ve hosted countless events and increased our online presence significantly. Throughout all this, there have been four integral members who have been with us since the beginning: Shivangi Khargonekar, Patrick Kwiatkowski, Chandni Shah, and Jason Vou.

On behalf of VPI’s three active founding members, Phillip Dixon, Marianna Oykhman, and myself, I would like to thank Shivangi, Patrick, Chandni, and Jason for their hard work by deeming them honorary founding members of VPI. Their selfless dedication and drive toward developing a better world has helped to lay the foundation for our organization, and I’m proud to work alongside them. It’s because of the commitment of these individuals, as well as all of our members, partners, and donors, that we have been able to evolve into a growing nonprofit with the potential to make a real change in the communities we work with.

This blog post was written by Merry Walker, Executive Director of Vort Port International

VPI BioD Team Brews Up a Fundraising Project

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Madagascar is well-known as home to an abundant variety of plant and animal species seen nowhere else in the world, as well as its high quality exports of vanilla, chocolate, and rice. What you may not know is Madagascar is also home to some seriously good coffee. This fact was discovered during Vort Port International’s most recent trip to the country earlier this year when team members tried some of the coffee during their travels. After tasting the quality of the coffee, the team thought there had to be a way to incorporate this wonderful product into our overall BioD strategy.

With this in mind, the BioD team and its local partners the Peace Corps and Rotaract Club AVANA began exploring the possibility of using the coffee as a fundraising tool for the BioD project. The goal would be to transport the coffee back to United States, where it would be roasted and sold in and around the Washington, D.C., area. The proceeds from the coffee would go toward operating costs for the BioD project as well helping defray the substantial initial investment required by the Malagasy when purchasing a biodigester.

Although the fundraising initiative is still early in its development, significant progress has been made. Thanks to our Peace Corps and Rotaract AVANA partners in Madagascar (and some of their family coming back to the U.S.!) we were able to send around five pounds of raw coffee to Washington, D.C. Once the coffee arrived, we teamed up with a locally owned roaster to roast the coffee for us and provide feedback on the quality. In addition, we took the roasted coffee to several local D.C. coffee shops for feedback and to gauge interest level.

The feedback from the roaster and the coffee shops was overwhelmingly positive! The quality of the coffee, along with rareness of being able to offer a coffee from Madagascar, led to a lot of interest from the roaster and coffee shops. Due to the high interest from our first batch of Malagasy coffee, we are already looking to bring back a second batch of raw coffee to test with additional roasters and gain some more feedback.

While there is still much work to be done, the BioD team is excited about the prospects the coffee fundraising brings. In addition to providing a source of fundraising for the BioD project, the project will aid Malagasy farmers in finding a steady buyer for their coffee and increase awareness of Madagascar as a legitimate coffee exporter. The BioD team is confident that conscious coffee consumers will be excited to try the Malagasy coffee, as well as learn about the biodigester program it helps support. Hopefully within the next year you will be seeing Malagasy coffee at your favorite coffee shop and will be able to try it for yourself!

This blog post was written by Mike Waldsmith, Business Lead – BioD Project with Vort Port International.

VPI Member Spotlight: Matt Ford

ImageMatthew Ford is a design engineer with Vort Port International’s Solaii (formerly India Solar Lamps) project. A native of South Carolina, he earned both his Bachelor and Master of Science in Engineering degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. During his senior year of college Ford took an industrial design course, and it was a project that involved designing for the dollar-a-day customer that sparked his interest in sustainable technology — something that until this point he had not given much thought to.

“I quickly learned why people call it ‘essential design’,” Ford said. “Designing for essential needs is the most basic, but at the same time complex, design problem. It shares all of the processes behind creating the things that make our lives convenient, such as securing investment capital, user research, manufacturing, marketing, etc., but the stakes are so much higher. The possibility to make real and lasting positive changes to peoples’ lives, coupled with the magnitude of the scalability, is both fascinating and inspiring.”

Before joining VPI in August 2012, Ford did pro-bono design work for a project serving farmers in Tanzania. In an effort to ease the burden of head-carrying water, the team built, shipped, and sold 1,000 pushcarts. This provided Ford his first experience working with overseas manufacturers and iterating through a design process with multiple pilot tests.

“Hearing the stories of our customers was inspiring, and it was a great start to reading up on international development. Everyone has an opinion about how to alleviate poverty, so it was helpful to get a sense for various attempts and outcomes.”

As with any successful endeavor, being able to think outside the box is crucial to the product design process — a point that was driven home for Ford while working in Tanzania. The pushcart team knew that the cart would be useless with a flat tire or a wheel that fell apart, and since the wheel was the most expensive component, they brainstormed to come up with an easy replacement scheme.

“Early in the project we were considering and testing all sorts of crazy ideas,” Ford explains.  “At one point it occurred to us that there were tons of old two-liter soda bottles in the urban areas, so we thought we could pressurize these and bind them to use as wheel hubs, since a pressurized bottle is nearly rock hard. We ran all the calculations to see what the strains and stresses on the bottle would be at various pressures and calculated how much dry ice we’d need to pressurize them. We then ran a series of load tests on the system, which consisted of repeatedly throwing 40-pound water jugs on dry-ice pressurized wheel hubs. Not exactly how I had imagined using my engineering degree!”

The team soon realized that dry ice was far too expensive, and that pressurizing bottles was dangerous. But they did find another solution — using recycled bike tires lashed to a steel spoke frame — which was both economical and safe.

Experiences such as this help Ford in his current role with VPI’s Solaii project, where he does mechanical and industrial design. His main task is to establish design requirements (based on prior design/field research) and translate those to a mechanical design that satisfies the specifications. He works with manufacturing and electrical engineers on the team to ensure all the pieces fit together and to help move the project into production. Currently he is making revisions to the design and preparing to build another functional prototype for testing, which will hopefully take place this fall. He also hopes to visit the sites in India once the team has completed its first production run.

Ford is looking forward to creating a product that will make positive and lasting changes to the quality of life in the communities Solaii serves. “I really enjoy meeting people who share my interests and learning from their experiences in development, but  overall I want to work on projects that make life better for people today, as well as those who will follow tomorrow.”

By day Ford works as a biomechanical engineer focusing on advanced materials research, specifically trying to understand injury mechanisms using physical and computational models, and apply those insights to develop better protective equipment. He has also designed sustainable housewares using the Kickstarter platform, and is currently experimenting with how to use graphic design and visual communication to make the chaotic news cycle more approachable (visit www.theshapeofnews.com for more information.) He is also the unofficial social secretary for VPI, organizing a monthly happy hour which gives the DC-based volunteers a chance to interact face-to-face.

Whether sketching out designs, collaborating with the Solaii team on conference calls, or bringing his fellow volunteers together at happy hour, VPI would like to thank Matt Ford for his many contributions to the team.

Vort Port International’s (VPI) Solaii project works to help the rural communities of India climb back on the economic ladder through effective solar lamp technology and smart business models, while reducing the environmental and human health hazards of kerosene lighting. For more information or to find out how you can contribute to this project please visit http://www.vortport.com/our-projects/solar-lamps/.

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

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

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