Archived Story

‘Waterboys’ going global

Published 10:35pm Thursday, July 22, 2010

Charles Jespersen, plastic filter with side spout. (The Daily News/John Eby)
Charles Jespersen, plastic filter with side spout. (The Daily News/John Eby)

By JOHN EBY

Dowagiac Daily News

We live by 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.

But other countries, such as the Dominican Republican, cannot take clean water for granted .

In fact, 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water, killing 1.6 million children, or one every 15 seconds.

Charles Jespersen, a retired Whirlpool executive from Benton Harbor’s Sunrise Rotary Club, found himself in charge in 2004 of its first international project, biosand filters Dominicans fabricated from concrete, which has since evolved into a lighter weight plastic version.

Initially, Jespersen’s club put together $5,000 along with St. Joseph and Lakeshore Rotarians and wrote a grant for another $5,000.

What started with that $10,000 in seed money has been leveraged and grown into a $2 million undertaking that involves even the U.S. Navy.

Dowagiac Rotarians have contributed $2,000, enough to provide 33 filters and safe water to 500.

Jespersen, who spoke Thursday noon to the club at Elks Lodge 889, headed next to the first meeting of a new club in Saugatuck.

District 6360’s biosand filter project encompasses not only 58 Rotary clubs, but has spread through 160 presentations to 12 districts in eight states, from Wisconsin and Illinois to Nebraska and Arizona, as well as numerous schools and churches.

In 2006, “The Waterboys” won Michigan’s highest award for volunteerism.

Rotary was a “natural player” for such an undertaking, Jespersen said, because of its service mission, an army of volunteers around the globe and its dedication to eradicating polio.

Sanitation is key to a solution and can be as simple as washing hands in the 10 to 12 gallons an hour provided by the simple 3-foot-tall system consisting of a diffuser plate, fine sand, coarse sand, gravel and a side spigot from which purified water pours.

Each biosand filter can accommodate 15 people, Jespersen said, including neighbors, who soon notice that those so equipped are not sick as frequently as before.

It takes 14 days for filters to become operational.

Slow sand filtration, a “robust” process, sifts out parasites and reduces diarrhea 47 percent — a result replicated in Cambodia.

The first Rotarians to visit the Dominican Republic came away so impressed that they raised $19,000 on top of the initial $10,000 investment.

In 2005, District 6360, of which Dowagiac is part, adopted the project.

Leveraging makes it possible for one person to literally change the world with a $60 filter that equates to the cost of a cup of coffee a week.

Sturgis elementary pupils raised $1,400.

“Kids get the need for clean water,” Jespersen said. “Saving kids’ lives is what it’s all about.”

His PowerPoint presentation follows the life of Marisol, who is now 13 after overcoming myriad health hurdles.

What elevated the effort to the next level was the HydrAid Plastic BSF with automatic chlorination.

Also, working toward a $125,000 distribution center, toward which Rotarians in this region gave $40,000.

BSF produce water 92 to 94 percent clean, 98 percent with chlorination, which is why the exercise of “finding friends, funding filters and keeping it flowing” has mushroomed, although the 25,000 installed is a drop in the bucket of 975,000 before the DR will be finished.

“We’ve raised about $450,000,” Jespersen said, noting the “fascinating” path from a process “as old as the hills” through a Calgary water specialist to involvement by some of Michigan’s most well-known companies — Amway, Dow Chemical and Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, which makes the plastic filters.

There are plans to take the unit commercial and market it internationally.

Jespersen said Dow donated enough resin to make 300,000 filters.

“It’s a Michigan product that’s going around the world,” he said, including a thousand airlifted to Haiti.

The Navy’s Operation Handclasp utilizes pallets of filters when crews go ashore at ports of call.

The club began the 2010-2011 year with 46 members, President Don Woodhouse reported.

Father Rick Swanson of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, who is moving to Vermont, attended his last meeting.

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