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The Transformative Power of Meditation

A former football player struggling with addiction found his way with meditation.

There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.

— Bob Ross.

You are holding a bar of soap. If you want to keep this bar of soap in your hand, you must allow it to just be there. The moment that you squeeze it, it is going to shoot out of your hand. This metaphor can be rather counterintuitive when applied in life. For example, if someone decides that they want to become a famous painter, then intense dedication, sacrifice, and practice seem inevitable. Letting life unfold organically can be an easier task when you confidently know what you want but becomes harder when the end goal  is particularly emphasized.

Take Bob Ross for instance, it is evident that he did not have an end goal of becoming a famous for painting, he just simply loved painting from one moment to the next. The quality of an intention is the greatest determinant in whether human satisfaction is sincere and enduring or superficial and short-lived. For Forrest, watching Bob Ross’ live paintings made him wonder what he, in his life, could approach with such gentleness and compassion.

Forrest was born in Mobile, Alabama where he lived a conventional southern life. While playing football in high school, he broke his back, which left him bed-bound and eventually led to a pain medication dependency. During this sedentary decline, he was also diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Adderall — his dosage quickly escalated to three pills a day. This toxic routine led Forrest to exist in a constant drug-induced state which soon became unmanageable. The medication was providing a temporary fix, but Forrest was compelled to seek a solution to treat the underlying problem.

In life, hitting rock-bottom can present the opportunity for significant growth. Forrest was unhappy with his situation and began his search for a more concrete solution. During his search, he stumbled upon meditation, grew curious about its benefits, and started researching the practice. Forrest came across a local meditation center, the Meditation Center of Alabama, and decided to give the center a visit.

Meditating
Forrest and Nena practicing daily meditation at the Meditation Center of Alabama. Photo: Audrey Stewart

Doctor Nena Nimit was the first person Forrest met at the Meditation Center. At that point, Forrest was attempting to ween himself off of his medication, and Nena, being a psychiatrist, was qualified to help. The support and instruction Forrest received from Nena helped him learn simple meditation exercises that, over time, gave him the same relief as his prescribed medicine. With meditation, Forrest noticed that his conscious state was not being artificially altered and he no longer felt ‘chemically charged.’ After Forrest was entirely off his medication, he rejoiced in his newfound clarity and ability to navigate his emotions. Life problems became increasingly easy to solve and mindfulness seemed to be a natural byproduct of his consistent meditation practice.

Like Bob Ross, Forrest is now able to see life’s misfortunes as a series of happy accidents. He had no control over breaking his back, but it was this incident that provided him with the determination to start questioning the reality he had accepted for himself. Forrest was then able to recognize how he was a product of his environment, which inspired further self-reflection.

Forrest meditated on the events that lead to his life spiraling out of control. People unconsciously pick up on messages from their environment. Forrest explains, “We feel the only option is to keep up with the momentum at all costs. Because if we stop, then people will pass us, we will miss opportunities, and we will fail. This is what we’re told. Work harder than the next person.” While the world is moving at a faster pace, it seems illogical to practice being still, even for a few minutes. Wouldn’t that detract from the time spent getting ahead? Forrest would argue no. According to him, meditation is profound and has the power to radically change your life. This is why Forrest became a meditation instructor.

A new fascination developed: people who approach life by simply allowing things to happen. His definition of success shifted as he observed the people in the meditation community as having honest intentions. Forrest saw this in Nena. Every word she spoke in conversation had a genuine loving intention behind it — in every moment. To Forrest, that is success. He recalls, “I had never met anybody like that until I met Nena. People like her possess a quality and perspective of life that is such a gift you just have to be around it. They are willing to sacrifice things that we are not willing to sacrifice so they can just be as helpful or good at what they are doing.”

As his practice deepened, he gained further understanding of himself and began a journey inward. It started with the realization that he could be still, notice what was naturally arising within, and question why it was happening. This allowed Forrest to look backward at all the events in his life that lead to the moment he felt a certain way.

Meditating in Noisy Area
Forrest Neal outside of the Meditation Center of Alabama meditating in a noisy median during rush hour traffic. Photo: Audrey Stewart

The Meditation Center of Alabama is an affiliate of the Dhammakaya Foundation, whose headquarters are at the Dhammakaya Temple in Thailand. According to the Middle Way Meditation Institute, Dhammakaya stands for, “a state of purity and a path to wisdom within,” and the Middle Way Meditation technique, which is taught at the meditation center, is a reflection of this. The Meditation Center of Alabama’s mission statement reads as follows:

The knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and meditation is universally applicable to all regardless of race, religion, or background. Our members are largely Christian, proving that the truths discovered by the Buddha are universally applicable to all in cultivating peace, harmony, and loving-kindness in the world. It is our belief that sustainable world peace will be achieved when each person is able to find inner peace.

The Meditation Center of Alabama.

Although it is a Buddhist organization, due to the open nature of the meditation center, Forrest did not feel pressured to convert to a new religion. The atmosphere was inclusive, genuine, and accepting. Being there was the first time Forrest had attended anything other than a Christian event, and he grew more comfortable being around people of a different religion. This experience made him realize that there were people who care about one another despite having different belief systems. They are willing to help you even if there are fundamental disagreements as far as one’s religious or spiritual perspective. Opportunities arose that allowed Forrest to observe what Buddhism was like without feeling coerced into signing up for anything.

Venerable Nicholas Thanissaro Giving Lecture
Venerable Dr. Nicholas Thanissaro during his presentation on meditation at the University of South Alabama. Photo: Audrey Stewart

Many ordained monks or laypeople from the Dhammakaya Temple donate their time to the meditation center to teach classes, retreats, and lead meditation sessions. Venerable Dr. Nicholas Thanissaro, originally from the UK, was one of the head monks at the temple and made regular visits to the Alabama center to teach. Forrest was intrigued by Venerable Nicholas’ story, and due to his welcoming nature, Forrest was compelled to learn more from him about the world of meditation and Buddhism.

Eventually, an opportunity arose where Forrest was invited on a lengthy retreat to be taught by Venerable Nicholas and essentially live like a monk. This was a rare circumstance — Forrest was able to dip into the reality of monks, but without meeting all the requirements like shaving your head and eyebrows and following certain dietary restrictions. Forrest had the chance to immerse himself in this alternative existence, which he holds immeasurable gratitude for. Venerable Nicholas saw how persistent, transparent, and genuine Forrest was. Forrest reflects on that time and remembers, “I just wanted to know the answers, and he felt that.”

A few months later, Venerable Nicholas was scheduled to transfer to his monastery in Los Angeles, to act as the head monk there. He offered Forrest the opportunity to drive him across the country, from Alabama to L.A., to drop him off at his new temple — which was an honor. At that point, Forrest had never been west of Louisiana or north of South Carolina, and despite only having five days to prepare for the cross-country road trip, he couldn’t wait to get on the road.

Forrest and Venerable Nicholas Thanissaro
Forrest Neal and Venerable Dr. Nicholas Thanissaro en route to Los Angeles. Photo: Forrest Neal

It was a spiritual journey. The whole trip was planned by Venerable Nicholas and paid for by his temple. He chose the most extraordinary places to see along the way — Cadillac Ranch and the Grand Canyon were among a few. Forrest attempts to describe the trip:

“To go on a journey with someone like that… it is hard to put into words. It changed the way I viewed my life and the world around me. The whole time we didn’t listen to any music or radio. Just silence, enjoying each other’s company, or having a conversation. Anything else was a distraction.”

Forrest Neal.

Forrest had the chance to see parts of the U.S. that he didn’t know existed, and experience this alongside someone who was pursuing their own inner journey to a level of extreme dedication. He had never met anyone with a commitment to that degree — someone who was willing to make monumental sacrifices in the modern world to focus on their purpose.

Acknowledging someone’s innate gifts can have a profound impact on them. We can all recall that moment years ago when a teacher told us we were talented, or a significant other made us feel heard and seen for the first time. There was a special reason why Venerable Nicholas chose Forrest to accompany him on the trip. Forrest explains, “I was a new person to the temple. I’m not a monk and I had not been practicing meditation for a long time. It seemed like he had seen a lot of potential in me.”

Forrest giving lecture at University of Southern California
Forrest with the meditation club at the University of Southern California after a lecture he gave. Photo: Forrest Neal

A connection to L.A. was established. Forrest has been invited to speak multiple times at the University of Southern California. He collaborates with medical professionals to ensure his presentations are accurate and clear. After routinely traveling to L.A. and pursuing a mindful meditation certification program there, Forrest packed up his bags in Mobile, Alabama, and relocated to California for good.

It is easy for spiritual seekers to be drawn into a guru’s mystical promises of permanent bliss. It is evident that many modern gurus who preach new age doctrines succumb to dishonesty and lack integrity. This unfortunate truth reinforces how Forrest approaches meditation and spirituality; with a dedication to truth and ethics. He is influenced by the core virtues of Buddhism and is committed to the accessibility of his instructions. Forrest wants to help people come into their own truth. He explains:

I am in a position to help people who are teetering on the edge of wanting to have an experience in meditation but don’t know how to articulate what they want to experience. They may be in a spot where they are being enticed by new ageism — like looking at a new shiny object that inevitably catches their attention. The more I meditate, the more I realize my purpose for doing it. I gain insight into how to help those who are having trouble connecting with the practice.

Forrest Neal.

Meditation is very difficult for some people. This can be attributed to uncontrollable circumstances like the conditions we are born into, how we were raised, and certain life experiences. We are each programmed and conditioned by our external environment to some extent. That being said, meditation can appear to be a less rational tool for some. Forrest clarifies, “I am still a programmed person, even though I meditate regularly. The only difference is, now I have the tools to steer my programming in a more effective way.” This newfound resource is self-awareness, and it gave Forrest the power to change his life by identifying what he could control and then restructuring his environment. No, we can’t prevent our brains from processing information. However, we can slow down momentarily, and drop into a space that is limitless. In this space, we are the version of ourselves prior to the experiences that shaped us. It is here that all superficial worries fall away, grudges become futile, and the sense of Oneness is recognized.

Newcomers to meditation sometimes aren’t aware of how their physical environment influences them. This technological age comes with side effects. We are glued to our screens and inundated with information. Our minds coexist with an unrelenting white noise, an incessant scramble of inner dialogue. What if we could compartmentalize or remove this? If we take some time to just be in the moment, it substantially increases our capacity and potential when performing any task.

You can do more and do it better. For instance, imagine someone is worried about acing an interview, but during their frantic preparation, they have negative chatter looping in their mind. These subliminal thoughts are focused on fears and insecurities. The ability to switch your mind over to positive thoughts can’t be accomplished by force. That would be comparable to practicing self-love by staring at yourself in the mirror and repeating “I love you” until your whole self-perception magically changes. Meditation takes dedication and discipline, but the payoff is monumental. Unnecessary and harmful thoughts fall away while you inch closer to truth and clarity.

Forrest Neal outside the Meditation Center of Alabama. Photo by: Audrey Stewart

Even after a few years of teaching meditation, Forrest never encountered somebody that was able to pick it up instantly. It is a sensitive exercise and takes a lot of practice to find the meditative state. Forrest explains that on one end of the spectrum is a wakened state of mind where your brain is processing information, and on the other end is a sleeping state where you are in a daze or about to sleep. It is the zone in the middle of the two that is the meditative state. Forrest grew curious about how the practice of meditation began and found it hard to imagine cavemen having the ability to zone in on that one little spot.

Forrest began studying the history of how meditation was discovered. Meditation is the skill of returning your wandering mind back to its original point of focus over and over again. There was a person who discovered that and was able to share it with others. Who is that person? While this fact is largely unknown, Forrest found that the most interesting answer points to the story of Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha.

Royalty and wealth shielded Siddhartha from the suffering beyond his kingdom walls. Despite being tended to his entire life, the search for truth drew him to the outside world. After discovering peasants burdened with sickness, old age, and death, Siddhartha gave up all luxuries to be of service to others.

We are all faced with the dilemma of how to spend our time on earth. Will we chase sensory pleasures or look to the less fortunate and offer our help? Forrest elaborates:

The story of the Buddha is like the story of us coming into our awakening. It is about discovering yourself in this world as a cog in the machine and the liberation that accompanies that realization. Continue to participate in it — or don’t. You have freedom of choice. This is the process of becoming aware.

Forrest Neal.

Ghana. A Cultural Pact

Inside Ghana with Clare Cutler.

“Ghanaian values stem from a cultural lineage built upon trust.”

Clare Cutler.

Clare Cutler, a graduate of the University of Illinois, holds a bachelor’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning with a minor in Landscape studies, and she is about to pursue a master’s degree in Environmental Justice at the University of Michigan. In 2015, Clare joined the Peace Corps as an agricultural volunteer in Ghana—recognizing how her passion for environmental sustainability coupled perfectly with the opportunity to shed all modern conveniences.

She hoped to discover cultural nuances that would have an impact on her understanding of the world while studying the effects of climate change on ecological systems. After spending more than two years in Ghana, Clare has returned to the United States with a newfound wisdom. She offers an indispensable perspective on Ghana’s cultural dynamics and how Ghanaian values contrast with those of America. She reminds us that John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps with a mission. At the University of Michigan in 1960 he asked,

How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.

John F. Kennedy knew that immersive cross-culture exchange would blend the values of these prospective countries by opening up an ongoing constructive dialogue, thus, reinforcing a multi-cultured world. Clare brought me through her day-to-day life working alongside her Ghanaian friends on a cashew farm which sparked interesting questions about gender roles. The most rewarding aspects of being immersed in a foreign culture are the paradoxical realities that cannot be discovered in a textbook, but instead, require true connection. Clare shed light on the value of embracing cultural differences and harnessing the power of foreign relationships. Her volunteer experience in Ghana crystallized her ambition to help people gain a voice and protect their communities for themselves and future generations.

Although the cultural barriers were apparent, for Clare, they acted as learning experiences that allowed her to adopt, appreciate, and integrate new ideas.

The quality of service the Peace Corps provides is conducive with spending every waking moment intertwined with the people of the country, consequently, learning the subtleties of their cultural landscape. This knowledge aids in sincerely understanding what the people need, which Clare argues, is not a core intention of some NGO groups. For the past 50 years, the Peace Corps has helped skilled young people establish international friendships and has been committed to promoting world peace. Clare’s initial inspiration to join the Peace Corps is credited to her high school teacher, who relayed the simplicity of the organization’s mission by sharing her experience of volunteering in Jamaica. Her teacher tells a story of the World Map Project. With a large sheet of grid paper, she outlined the world map and had her students guess where Jamaica was. They pointed to Russia, China, and the United States, and after the whole map was colored except their country, they were astonished at how small their tiny island was. The project inspired questions regarding geography and Jamaica’s relationship to the other countries on the map. Clare reflected on this story by affirming, “that is what made me feel like that is what I want to be doing. Not going in with “solutions” or “big plans,” but just person-to-person.”

Soon after arriving in Ghana, the effects of climate change became starkly evident to Clare. She explained that marginalized groups tend to endure the consequences of world-wide environmental decisions. Clare continued,

This phenomenon was visible in Ghana. I lived with people who rely on a predictable climate for their crops. Because of climate change, their food security and income are in jeopardy. The people of Ghana use far less fossil fuels than the west, but they are faced with the consequences of our actions. There are many other issues on a much smaller scale with water and air quality, waste management, and ecology—where people with the least power are forced to accept living with environmental hazards.

Clare unraveled these issues as she farmed, day after day, adjoined to her Ghanaian friends on the farm. Each morning, the mother, Angela—who usually held a baby on her back—and her young daughters, would lug food and water on their heads for three miles to the farm. Once they arrived, if it were cashew season, they would spend hours picking cashew apples off the ground, twisting the nut and throwing away the sour fruit. After taking a lunch break and working for three or four more hours, since it is a woman’s responsibility to tend the fire at home, the mother would then chop the firewood that would later be carried home on their heads.  As for the men, they begin farming earlier than the women, but at a much more moderate pace. This is because the men are sometimes tasked with hard labor like building mounds for yams—a duty off-limits to women—and because they simply have less to do. Clare recalls that, “by the time the men go early to farm, the wife cleans the house, sweeps everything, makes breakfast, is selling her own thing (like fried dough or porridge), gets the kids ready for school, prepares lunch, brings it to the farm, and feeds the men.” Also, the men usually ride motorcycles or bicycles as means of transportation, unlike the women, who have to walk. To Clare, it is obvious that women are not valued as much as the men in Ghanaian society, but the fact that women hold more representation in politics causes the social commentary on gender roles to remain unclear. 

Integrating into Ghana’s community-oriented culture inevitably began to chip away at Clare’s rigid demand to be independent. The American way—work hard and watch out for yourself—is very self-reliant. While, in Ghana, this way of thinking is flipped upside down. It infuriated Clare when Mame, one of the Ghanaian women Clare lived with, would incessantly sweep her porch. Clare interpreted the act as Mame assuming she wasn’t able to do things herself. One morning, to prove a point, Clare decided to clean everything until it was sparkling. Yet, Kwame, Clare’s neighbor boy, readily walked on over, picked up a sponge, and began scrubbing her stove. Then it clicked. Clare realized that Kwame just wanted to spend time with her. Seeing that most Ghanaians don’t have a lot of money, this was their way of welcoming her into the community. Clare recalls, “they aren’t doing it because they think I can’t do it. It was a huge shift in my frame of mind. Letting people help me. It made me realize that I can do nice things like that for them too. It is not offensive to help someone. It was a huge shift for me. That was the biggest one.” 

Ghana’s communal tendencies also influence their monetary system. Before living in Ghana, Clare thought that money was fixed and had rules, like most Americans would assume with their “don’t spend more than you earn” mentality. In order for a culture to thrive, it must align itself with either order or chaos. In this case, in the eyes of any American, chaos triumphs in Ghana. Clare quickly realized that money is completely cultural and that the Ghanaians do not save because that would mean people could borrow their money. Their society relies on the guarantee of helping one another, constantly expecting and reciprocating this promise. Some people take advantage of the system and live perpetually indebted to others, but for the Ghanaians, this drawback isn’t great enough to change their ways. While in Ghana, budgeting and planning was a struggle for Clare, and deadlines did not exist. She had to set boundaries. 

The book, “African Friends and Money Matters,” by David E. Maranz, was issued to the Ghana Peace Corps volunteers, and argued that, as a westerner, you will never become fully immersed into every aspect of a foreign culture. Although the cultural barriers were apparent, for Clare, they acted as learning experiences that allowed her to adopt, appreciate, and integrate new ideas. She became more open to sharing and when her items were returned to her broken, instead of being insulted, she was able to recognize the fundamentally different relationship Ghanaians have with material items. Clare notes, “westerners are much more about acquiring. Ghanaians will use something until it is totally exhausted. Especially flip flops. They will put them over the fire, melt the plastic and put them back together. That is what a lack of options looks like.” Living amongst these major lifestyle polarities is what the Peace Corps is about, getting to know what another culture is like. Clare’s experience demonstrates how worldliness leads to humility.  

So, why Ghana? The Peace Corps is committed to matching volunteers with a country that is best aligned with their skills, experience, and interests. And incoming volunteers, who are committed to service, are willing to be placed anywhere based on this assessment. When Clare announced her decision to join the Peace Corps in Ghana, she received mixed reactions from her friends and family—they were very worried for her safety. After more than two years in Ghana, Clare was slightly frustrated while reiterating how peaceful Ghana is.

According to Clare, most of the violence in Ghana occurs tribe to tribe and the Peace Corps made sure they stayed away from those areas. The Global Peace Index (GPI) ranks Ghana as the 43rd most peaceful country in the world while the United States sits comfortably at number 114, nestled between Rwanda and El Salvador. The GPI assesses safety and security, domestic and international conflict, and the level of militarization. Clare recalls a list of mass shootings that occurred globally during her time in Ghana, including the shootings in Orlando and Las Vegas. Meanwhile, in Ghana, getting her phone stolen was the worst thing that happened to Clare. Clare pledged that if your bag is left out in the open for hours, it will still be there when you return. Apparently, thievery is not tolerated in Ghana. Ghanaian values stem from a cultural lineage built upon trust. Clare put it this way:

The way shops or stores work… ladies will just be in their stores asleep. If you want to buy something you have to wake them up. If I wanted to, I could open up their jar of money, take it, and run. And it just doesn’t happen. It is a cultural pact. They like to be able to sleep in their shops and trust one another. If someone messes that up, the consequences are so huge that you would not dare.

So, what are the consequences? If someone is caught stealing in Ghana, they will face the punishment of public shaming. One night in Ghana, Clare was hanging out on the beach with a bunch of friends when she witnessed a crowd of people begin to circle a young boy, almost hitting him. They started screaming, “YOU ARE A THEIF! YOU ARE A LIAR!” He had stolen someone’s phone. Clare remembers, “even his family members participated, because if his family wasn’t seen joining in and calling him a thief, they would have been assumed to be thieves themselves. It is about reputation and pride.

Those are the consequences. It’s like ‘mob societal justice.’” Clare outlined the way in which Ghana handles justice but did not claim it was right or safe—just different. The benefits of cultural immersion were evident that night. Unlike many of her friends on the beach, Clare was able to pick up subtle cultural precepts that indicated the context of the public shaming. 

Clare’s personal mission in Ghana was aligned with that of the Peace Corps—to promote a better understanding of Americans to the people served, and vice versa. Clare explains that the Diversity Visa Lottery in Ghana, a program that allows qualified and educated professionals to be selected for American citizenship, is an important bridge linking our nations. President Trump has supported legislation that will eliminate the Visa Lottery. Clare warns us: 

I don’t think people appreciate that this positive relationship isn’t guaranteed. We have this soft political power in the world because we are a big exporter, employer, and we are the United States. I saw so much influence from China in Ghana and it made me realize that our power is not guaranteed forever and if we don’t foster those relationships with other countries, it will be gone.

Clare lived up to the challenge John F. Kennedy set forth for young educated individuals to commit a portion of their life to service. And it won’t be the last time for Clare, she would like to serve in the Peace Corps again. As a volunteer, her example and influence will have a lasting impact on Ghana and the United States. Currently, Clare is residing in Houston with her boyfriend—who is also a Peace Corps volunteer—as she anticipates the start of her master’s program at the University of Michigan. Below the surface of being a volunteer lies a world of opportunity to change how we view others, ourselves, and the world. Cross-cultural exchange creates unbreakable bonds and strengthens diversity, in turn, making the world a better place.

150,000 Children Die Every Year in Pakistan from Drinking Dirty Water

The solution is simple: provide clean drinking water.

It was a dream come true to help people by providing something they needed every day.

— Franklin Woodland.

One child dies every four minutes in Pakistan from drinking dirty water. According to Franklin Wright, a software engineer and founder of Pristine Water, a water company in Pakistan, these deaths are preventable. You don’t need a new drug. You don’t need any research. You don’t need any new technology. All it takes is safe water. The people in Pakistan can’t drink the tap water and have to buy bottled water, but most of the time the bottled water they purchase is contaminated.

Franklin graduated college with a degree in software engineering and ended up owning his own consulting firm. He hired mechanical and electrical engineers who would then build custom software systems for Microsoft. After 20 years of working with fortune 500 companies, Franklin began to feel a calling towards something else. Around this time, he had made a significant investment in a new company that offered government software services to the defense industry. When the financial crisis hit, and his intermediary went bankrupt, it caused his whole business to tank. This presented a window of opportunity for Franklin to start from scratch once again.

Franklin decided to align himself with a relief and development agency through some relationships with others doing the same in Somalia. He began to travel around the world and examine the possibilities of where he could start a business. Although Franklin was not well versed in the philanthropic or non-profit world, he had a straightforward goal: help people get jobs.

He met a couple who started a company in Pakistan where they loaned money to approximately 300 women in savings groups, teaching them how to invest and save. Franklin resonated with the couple’s business fluency and was drawn into their world. They invited Franklin to stay at their home and introduced him to many people in Karachi. Their generosity opened the door to opportunity: Pakistan has many systemic problems, so Franklin decided to look into possible business ventures.

He made a spreadsheet of 25 different business ideas and decided to look further into selling furniture. Franklin sought professional advice on the matter and reached out tothe former CEO of an established furniture company. He warned Franklin of the complexity of such a venture and suggested that he should address the specific needs in Karachi. He advised, “That’s not really what you want to do, that’s not why you left America and why you are leaving technology to do this.” He urged Franklin to pursue something in one of these five areas: healthcare, education, energy, agriculture, dairy, or water. He contended that ventures in these areas would help people in need and were also recession proof.

After some research, Franklin concluded that clean water was the biggest need. 300,000 children die every year in Pakistan. Half of them die from drinking dirty water and it is completely preventable. Franklin discovered that poor people in Pakistan already buy water in reusable containers, but a lot of the water is contaminated. Franklin reinforced this unfortunate fact, “They are buying contaminated water. It is really sad. So I thought if I could manufacture safe drinking water and sell it at the same price that they’re buying contaminated water for, that it would be a slam dunk.”

Franklin imported a reverse osmosis manufacturing machine, built a small facility, and started to purify water in Karachi. Right now, the operation can bring clean water to about 20,000 people per day. He then hired around 15 people to deliver water to shopkeepers in Pakistan. Franklin felt like it was a dream come true to help people by providing something they needed every day.

Many products that aimed to bring clean water to Pakistan were not effective, complicated to use, and some even involved back washing. Franklin explained that if a person is making 200 dollars a month, which is common in Pakistan, they will not be able to spend 12 dollars on a water bottle with a straw in it.

Myth #1: Poor people have a lot of spare time to use appliances that take a long time to filter water.

Franklin explained, “People think poor people have all this free time on their hands. That’s not true at all. They have dignity and worth. They know that they are valuable. Everyone knows that as a human being and so they are not willing to spend 30 minutes going through 20 steps in English when they don’t speak English.”

The goal was to have 30,000 people drinking his water every day. Franklin had previously owned a million dollar business in the U.S., so setting a high goal didn’t scare him. He started an investment company and began asking people for investments. People laughed at him. They asked, “You’re going to sell water for a penny per liter to poor people and that is going to make money?” People deemed it as a bad business idea, but loved the mission and wanted to help. Instead of receiving investments, Franklin began to accept donations which led to the formation of a charity called the Global Impact Fund.

This is how it works:

The donations made to the Global Impact Fund are directly invested in the water company in Pakistan, Pristine Water. A brand new well was recently built at their water manufacturing facility in Karachi. They use the well to extract the water out of the ground from an aquifer.

Myth #2: If you dig a well deep enough, you’ll get pure water.

Wells can get contaminated with surface water if they are not constructed properly. A scientist at Dow Chemical Company who holds a Ph.D. in water engineering, has helped Franklin assess the process, materials, and machines. He even helped design the well to make certain no contamination would come in. After the water has been extracted, they run it through a reverse osmosis machine, which jams the water through microscopic holes in a filter. The holes allow only the water molecules to slide through — keeping out all of the contaminated molecules, including arsenic, lead, jet fuel, pesticides, and radiation. Franklin clarified,

Reverse osmosis is more expensive, but I wanted to make sure what I was giving people was safe. There are a lot of other, cheaper, not as effective solutions and I didn’t want to use any of those. I wanted to make sure I could wake up every day and feel confident that people were getting the right water.

There is no human intervention in the process — the machine does it all. After the water has been processed, everything is extracted from the water except for hydrogen and oxygen, including minerals. Since sodium, magnesium, and calcium are all natural occurring minerals in water, they have to put those minerals back in for the water to taste right. Pristine Water purchases imported minerals from a large pharmaceutical company to guarantee the mineral quality is food-grade.

Franklin was in Jordan a couple years ago and was considering it as a location for his water business. He learned that Jordanians believe that human bodies are sacred and that nothing bad should be put into them. Because it is beyond their culture to put something bad in their water, they submit to the health laws. On the contrary, Pakistanis don’t necessarily feel the same way. Franklin elaborated,

It’s a different culture. They are very desperate in a lot of cases and they need money. Most Pakistanis don’t make enough to pay their bills, so they are like 20% negative each month. They have to go get another 20% every month even after working 6 days a week for 10 hours a day, and they will still be short. So any opportunity to make additional money permeates the whole culture.

Pristine Water tests their water regularly at an outside lab. They also have a microbiologist who proactively helps the employees create a hygienic environment. Franklin is confident that after six years of manufacturing, people respect the brand and the company, “They trust it. They know we care about them and care about what we are manufacturing.”

Suzuki has a joint venture with Tecno, a glass manufacturing company that makes windshields, and Pristine water is currently providing drinking water for the engineers at their facility in Pakistan. They were asked by Tecno to provide water with a different chemical composition for Tecno’s industrial application — a testament to Pristine Water’s astute manufacturing ability. They also had a pharmaceutical company request the same thing. Franklin explained, “They had 8 or 10 vendors and not one of them had the right thing. We were the only ones who had the right chemical composition — even though they had specified it.”

The Role of Pakistani Women

Pristine Water employs women to go door to door in the slums and talk to young mothers about the importance of clean water. The women in Pakistan are very influential in their families. Most are responsible for taking care of the children and preparing food. These mothers know what is best for their family, so if they tell their husbands that they need to switch to cleaner water, they will impact that buying decision.

“Our water costs one or two pennies more, but it’s safe. It’s not going to kill your kids or your husband.”

Franklin Woodland.

Franklin explained that,

Mothers also respond to the fact that if their husbands get sick, that means they will be out of work and cannot make money for the family. That is going to seriously impact the family because he doesn’t receive sick time at work, the don’t have any margin, any savings, if he’s sick then they aren’t earning money. So we lead with that — the financial benefit of drinking our water. We show them how it’s actually better for them to pay for clean water for their husband for a year than for him to get sick for three days.

Children are the most vulnerable when drinking contaminated water, especially under the age of one. Due to their small size and low weight, if they develop a waterborne disease like typhoid, dysentery, or cholera, it will cause severe diarrhea. Infants around 10 to 15 pounds will start losing fluid at a rapid pace. Parents have about two hours to take action, but many decide to wait it out. According to Franklin, some Pakistanis are reluctant to initiate, so there is a need to explain why taking these sick children to a clinic or hospital is vital to their survival. Pristine Water takes a proactive approach to this issue by educating mothers about the benefits of electrolyte mixtures and urging them to have these prepared to give to their sick children.

Remember Franklin’s sole objective mentioned earlier? To help people get jobs. Many women that Pristine Water hires are largely marginalized and have a difficult time finding a job. They are divorced, struggle with mental health issues, or have familial problems. Pristine Water provides free drinking water to the entire family of employees and have made a huge impact by creating job opportunities in Pakistan.

When people regularly drinking dirty water, their stomachs are constantly upset, they have chronic mild diarrhea, and it corrupts their palate. Franklin explains:

We want all of our employees drinking our water and we have had families tell us that we changed their whole life by giving them free drinking water that is clean. They didn’t realize how sick they previously were. Pakistanis love spicy food, so it is really diabolical how it corrupts the palate and damages their ability to correctly taste food.

Myth #3: Your body gets used to drinking dirty water.

Franklin clarifies, “You don’t get used to eating poop. Your body constantly rejects it and you can die from it. It is really a sad state of affairs how sick people are and they don’t even realize it, but instead, accept it as a way of life.”

Myth #4: If the water looks clear and doesn’t smell, it is OK to drink.

He continues, “That is not true! Even if the water is clear and doesn’t smell, it can have lead, arsenic, or precious metals in it which you can’t detect without a lab test. Boiling the water will get rid of microbiological contamination but it will not get rid of precious metals like lead or arsenic.”

If water that contains arsenic or nitrates is boiled, it can become concentrated which is very dangerous. Contaminated water that contains nitrates comes from the agricultural runoff that heavy rains bring. Nitrates can cause mental retardation and developmental disabilities and these effects are permanent. Children have a 45% higher absorption rate than adults do, so when they drink a small amount of contaminated water, it gets absorbed into their blood very quickly.

How can we help?

Pristine Water is a for-profit business in Pakistan, which is owned by Franklin’s investment company, International Water Technologies Corporation. The Global Impact Fund (GIF) is a charity in the United States which acts as an investor in the International Water Technologies Corporation. Donations made to the Global Impact Fund are directly invested into Pristine Water, helping to expand operations and provide water for thousands more in Pakistan. A couple years ago, Franklin made a concerted effort to raise a large amount of money for capital investments in Pristine Water. Last year, they successfully moved into a nice facility.

Pristine Water’s current objectives include:

  1. Pristine water would like to use staffing augmentation or recruiters to help find more qualified people to run the Pristine Water business in Pakistan.
  2. Pristine Water needs to upgrade their machines, tanks, and build new labs. These new machines will wash, fill, and cap the bottles without any human intervention. This automation will help support continuous improvement by raising hygienic standards and making the process air tight. This automation will not impact the need for labor jobs. Pristine Water will educate their laborers by training them on the automation technique.
  3. Pristine water need more vehicles for delivery. Trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles can be used for water delivery. Motorcycles rickshaws are very fuel efficient and make it easy to maneuver the many unpaved city streets. Franklin is excited about providing entrepreneurial opportunities for distribution companies in Pakistan. The motorcycle rickshaws can be financed for people through Pristine Water and paid back by performing water delivery services. This would allow them to keep the motorcycle rickshaw and start their own business.
  4. Pristine Water is interested in expanding to other cities in Pakistan. They currently provide clean drinking water to the employees and patients at Community Health Services, an organization in Pakistan that provides free healthcare to people living in Pakistani slums. They have about 30 health clinics in Karachi and they operate in the same slums as Pristine Water does. Pristine Water currently provides water to 9 of Community Health Services’ locations, and they have requested that Pristine Water provide water to the other 21 locations throughout Pakistan. Karachi has a population of about 21 million people and Pristine Water needs money to grow their business — opening up new warehouses, new manufacturing plants, expanding transportation operations, and hiring more managers. They will need to hire more women to go door to door and educate mothers about the health and financial benefits of clean water for their husband and children.
  5. Pristine Water is also launching a technology education program aimed to appeal to an entire Pakistani family. In addition to helping women, they would like to provide services for the children and fathers. It will be an after school program where kids learn how to use a computer and the internet. For teenagers, they will launch a coding curriculum — the manufacturing industry creates a significant demand for engineers in Pakistan. The program will also include job training, providing hard skills that people can translate into a living wage. For adults, there will be a literacy program that will give them the opportunity to learn how to read and write. The program will be run by Pakistanis, as education is highly valued in their culture.
  6. Pristine Water is always looking for business professionals who want to contribute to their initiatives. People have helped with marketing, sales, and logistics. Some have traveled to Pakistan and some have worked from their home office.

To anyone who is interested in making a donation: The Global Impact Fund is a 501C3 organization recognized by the U.S. government. They are a non-profit organization in the state of Illinois and all gifts are tax-deductible.

A $7 monthly donation will provide clean drinking water to a family of 6 in Pakistan. Please visit gifinternational.org to make a donation. Every donation matters.