Elk Grove woman works to bring Haiti clean water
First of two parts.
JACMEL, HAITI -- The Caribbean sun rises. The island of Haiti awakens. The rays highlight the Haitians' faces as they walk down a red-dirt road toward a single pipe, 3 feet tall with a faucet on top, that emerges from the ground.
Women in colorful clothes gather here, each with a 5-gallon bucket. They take turns drawing water, then balance the filled buckets on their heads for the walk back home.
One woman cups her hands and drinks straight from the source. But the water is not clean.
A simple test from this faucet in Jacmel, south of Port-au-Prince, shows E. coli bacteria, a main cause of the diarrheal diseases rampant in Haiti.
More than a year after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that devastated this impoverished nation, a lack of clean water is one of the biggest issues. Cholera, spread by contaminated water or food, has sickened some 140,000 people and killed 3,300 in an outbreak that began last October.
Elk Grove Village resident Lisa Ballantine operates a factory near this contaminated water supply. She makes cheap, simple water filters for Haitians and residents of other countries where sanitation is poor.
Ballantine's the one who ran the E. coli test. The FilterPure filters she invented, simple clay basins that clean water as it drips through into a 5-gallon bucket, remove the bacteria and other common waterborne pathogens.
But her experiences on this day show some of the challenges.
As she places the vial under the public faucet to test the water supply, a Haitian woman erupts in a forceful French-Creole rant not understood by Ballantine, but the woman's mannerisms convey her mistrust.
"She thinks I am putting cholera in the water," Ballantine says.
It's far from the only problem that stands between Ballantine and her goal of making sure there is a $35 FilterPure filter providing clean water for every Haitian family.
One family, one filter at a time. For 9.7 million Haitian people.
A drive to help
The logistics alone are extreme. Ballantine sets out in her dust-covered, four-wheel-drive Isuzu truck from the home she shares with her husband, Michael, a land developer and entrepreneur, near the town of Jarabacoa in the Dominican Republic.
It's a short trip to a factory in Moca, Dominican Republic, where the filters go by the name AguaPure.
This is Ballantine's first factory, operated by a local man, Radhames Carela. It replaces a simple kiln that launched the filter project in 2006. The factory churns out up to 120 8-pound filters a day for aid organizations around the world, which distribute the filters in African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda as well as in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Ballantine opened her first Haitian factory just a month after the earthquake in Jacmel, in the heart of the quake zone. Even now, a year later, the trip from the Dominican Republic is harrowing -- a heavily guarded border crossing that requires negotiation and bribes, bad roads, impoverished children swarming the car. The 120-mile trip takes as long as 17 hours.
Ballantine comes to Jacmel at least once a month, sometimes alone, sometimes with Michael, 46, who grew up in Rolling Meadows and Palatine, or one of their four kids: Joshua, 24, an aspiring journalist; Rachel, 22, a nurse; Josiah, 18, a student at Harper College in Palatine who intends to be a doctor; and Tobi, 16, a student at Wheaton Academy.
In Jacmel, home base on this particular occasion is a rented house shared with rats and spiders, with worms in the shower. Though fluent in the Spanish used in the Dominican Republic, Ballantine doesn't speak Haiti's version of French Creole. Her Jacmel factory manager, Andre Giles Boyer, translates for her.
She's here to check on the factory, which plays a role beyond making the filters. Her mission is for the factories to be run by local people, supporting local workers, and providing continuing training and education on how to use the filters that are made there. She hopes to open another factory soon in Hinche, north of Port-au-Prince.
The not-for-profit business makes 1,500 filters a month and sells them to organizations like Global Effect, Save the Children, Rotary and Habitat for Humanity, and many churches, including Lutheran Church Charities of Addison, which has an ongoing mission in Haiti.
Ballatine is even talking with the Chicago Cubs about sponsorship for her filters, since many of the team's players come from the Dominican Republic.
'I just feel for them'
If Ballantine has a message, it's this: "Regular people can change the world." Her epiphany came in 2003, when Ballantine, a 1985 Prospect High School graduate, was casting about for new direction as her kids grew older and needed her less. Led by her Christian faith to get involved in mission work -- she and her husband and children spent a year in the Dominican Republic in 2000-01 -- Ballantine read an article in Ceramics Monthly about Potters for Peace, a project to make inexpensive water filters in Nicaragua.
She looked up Manny Hernandez, a Northern Illinois University professor teaching a technology design class who had worked with Potters for Peace, and proposed a clean-water project for the Dominican Republic. As she tells it, he was skeptical of her idea but eventually realized she was serious in her convictions.
Hernandez helped Ballantine and a friend, Karen Rosenbloom, design and make filters and their first firing kiln in the Dominican Republic. He now travels the world helping to organize similar water-filter projects. Ballantine became an unstoppable force. The people she was going to help just didn't realize it yet. Her motivation, she says, is "those moms who can't get clean water to their babies, and I know how to get them clean water."
"I just feel for them," says Ballantine, who wears her emotions on her sleeve and tears up when a mother in Port-au-Prince describes her plight.
The filters operate with the kind of simplicity necessary to function and be manufactured in developing countries. Water gradually drips through a porous bowl made of ceramic that incorporates colloidal silver to kill bacteria and charcoal to improve the water's taste. The bowl has a lip that allows it to sit inside a 5-gallon bucket to collect the water, with a spigot at the bottom to dispense clean water.
On this visit to Jacmel, Ballantine wants to check on filters already in use.
The hardest obstacle she faces is educating Haitians to keep the filters operational, she says.
What she discovers is not encouraging. Walking from house to house, she finds people using only the bucket portion for water or using the clay filter for storage. In one house, the clay filter sits unused, holding only rodent feces.
"I feel discouraged," she says.
But a chance meeting on the street with a woman who uses and praises her filter lifts Ballatine's spirits.
"As people understand their need for water and learn to use the filter, it could definitely change their lives," she says. "Not only children are getting sick, but imagine adults having diarrhea, and if you had to go to work all day and you're sick from stomach issues, it's slowing you down."
Like the world's end
In 2006 the Ballantines, then living in Wayne, put their house on the market and moved to the Dominican Republic while keeping a condo in Elk Grove Village.
Michael, 46, who played on the Palatine High School football team in 1982, started a land development project on the island, calling it The Heights at LaJamaca for its perch on a mountainside overlooking the sleepy town of Jarabacoa. Their house nestles on the side of a mountain Lisa calls Jamaca de Dios, meaning Hammock of God. Fog envelopes the valley in the mornings; lush green vegetation comes into view after the sun rises higher. At the top of the mountain sits Michael's dream, his restaurant, Aroma de la Montaña. As he looks out from his restaurant's balcony he's thinking about how to market property in the development, because, he says, he has to "fuel the ship."
The scene is far different along the other paths the Ballantines choose to travel.
"Picture what hell would to be like, without any hope." That's Lisa Ballantine's description of Haiti even before the earthquake.
"Gdou, gdou, gdou" is what Haitians call the noise an earthquake makes, and the rattling dancelike motion it produces. A week after the quake, the Ballantines made their way to the disaster zone.
"It was crazy," Lisa Ballantine remembers. People walked like zombies. Debris and dust were everywhere.
A woman wearing dirty gray clothes covered in dust held a weeks-old baby too weak to cry, cradling the child's head and comforting it among the tragedy that surrounded her, Ballantine recalls. This was the woman's world now, hot and dry, full of death, with no food or water and help not coming anytime soon.
She must have thought that the world was coming to an end at that very moment, Lisa says.
Michael remembers breaking down in tears as he recounted to horrified friends and family members what he and his wife had seen.
"I cried and cried," he says.
The earthquake's destruction was so complete that only the smell gave away the location of bodies. Lisa will never forget the image of a tractor's bucket, lifting rubble from a collapsed nursing school, catching hold of a pair of legs and dangling a woman's body. Street dogs mauled bodies, leaving little more than bones and skeins of hair.
Ballantine gets to work, drumming up donations, determined that in five years she'll have another five factories, plus a small but organized staff in the United States to keep things in motion.
She has critics and supporters. One of the former recently sent a letter to her Elk Grove Village home, objecting to her help for the black Haitians.
"I feel sad for that person, that they would devalue human beings like that," Ballatine says.
But people who have never sponsored anything before send donations, which go toward the factories and a new International Training Center at the Dominican Republic factory site, which will open in June. It will have dormitories for about 20 students, classrooms, laboratories for testing the water and improved automated machinery, which will be supported with a grant by the Garretson Foundation of Cincinnati.
The center will teach how to make the ceramic filters, the logistics of distribution and the basics of humanitarian work in Haiti.
Ballantine is always looking for volunteers, interns, engineers who know how to build machines and ceramic technicians to help out in her factories. "I never refuse free help," she says.
Do just one thing
Haiti is near the breaking point. Governmental corruption and greed impede
progress. The shattered nation finds little sympathy from its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, where relations with Haiti are marred by suspicion and racial differences. Superstition and misinformation contribute to violence, with as many as 45 people suspected of being voodoo priests lynched, burned alive or killed with machetes over the belief that they brought about the cholera epidemic.
God "is crying harder than we are," Ballantine says.
Most Haitians struggle each day just to get to tomorrow.
Ballantine has set herself the difficult goal of helping them do that.
Bottom line, she says: "They need clean water."
She aims to convince Americans that she's nothing special, that if a mom without a college degree can do this, so can they.
"If I can do it, they can do it, 'cause I am just regular," she says. "Whatever we have to offer, we should offer. If everyone did just their one thing, (the world) would be different."
• Coming Monday: Rescued from the rubble, a child begins a new life with benefactors stretching all the way to Illinois, where a Prospect Heights native sponsors the boy and visits him on her medical missions to Haiti.
Editor's notePhotographers first on the scene of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti captured images that set a worldwide humanitarian effort in motion.
Visiting Haiti a year later, I saw and heard many terrible stories of devastation, loss and failed attempts at recovery.
But I also saw firsthand the dedication of suburban men and women who work every day in this broken nation to help the earthquake's victims people like Lisa Ballantine of Elk Grove Village, whom I followed during this trip.
I'm glad I was there to see firsthand that in Haiti, the story is not over.