Changing the world one liter at a time

Feb 6, 2009

Jeremy Bell is following his passion to expand on an engineering project near and dear to his heart. While many friends and peers head off for the corporate world, Bell's dream job involves going to live in rural Mexico to help distribute biosand water filters to communities lacking potable water.

Like most Kettering University students, Jeremy Bell, 24, of Collinsville, Ill., had the world by the tail; he was getting an education in the high-demand field of Engineering and he already had a few years of professional experience on his resume thanks to his co-op employment. But at 20 the Mechanical Engineering major was already asking “Is this enough? If I make a lot of money, will I be happy?”

Almost afraid to answer his own question, Bell was feeling jaded and disillusioned. Then serendipity intervened, he saw a simple flyer on a bulletin board announcing the formation of an Engineers Without Borders chapter on campus.

“I thought the idea of doing stuff for others was for ‘chumps,’ but I was desperate enough to try anything,” he said. “I helped with the first project, ‘Climbing Through Flint,’ and have been hooked on service ever since.” The ‘Climbing Through Flint’ project built a handicapped accessible piece of playground equipment on every elementary school playground in Flint, Mich.

That first, locally-focused project led to the first international project for the group and the first step for Bell, who graduated Kettering University in December 2008, into nothing short of a calling.

The EWB-A Section group’s second project, introduced by then group president Mario Flores, of Saltillo, Mexico, was to engineer a way for villagers in Estanque de Leon, in north central Mexico, to have safe drinking water. 

The desert community’s water supply is an open source reservoir that is contaminated by the environmental and animal waste.  The result is rampant illnesses within the community. In addition, due to semi-desert conditions and low rainfall, the village would go a month every year without any water, said EWB adviser Dr. Laura Sullivan, professor of Mechanical Engineering at Kettering.

“Our challenge was to find some way to clean their water without any electricity, batteries, or pumps,” said Bell.  “This was just the kind of challenge that a Kettering student loves to hear.  I had zero knowledge about water filtration, or working with severely limiting parameters.  However, every day I would research, learn, build, and test some concept.  Although I wasn’t being paid for all these long hours of work, I was loving the process and having a great time!”

EWB A-Section made three trips to Estanque de Leon, the first was an assessment trip to determine what resources were available and the challenges the group would have to face developing a system to provide safe drinking water.

“Although we were there to collect data about the village’s water, health and economic situation, the trip helped make the project very personal for me,” Bell said. “The relationships we built in the community were all the motivation I needed to get to work to find a solution.”

The second trip was made to test two pilot biosand filters the group engineered, to determine if the design would work in real-world applications and to collect feedback before the final installation. Working on a fairly tight deadline, group members held weekly phone conferences and worked on the pilot filters at night and on weekends during their co-op employment rotation.

Biosand filters are a household-sized version of slow sand filters and able to achieve filtration rates of close to 99 percent.

On the final implementation trip in October 2008, many of the original team EWB members had graduated and moved on to full-time employment. Bell and Flores went as mentors to the next “generation” of EWB A-Section.

“It was a very interesting dynamic, because we brought a lot of underclassmen on the trip,” said Bell.  “It was a great experience and I’m glad it happened the way it did.  I see supporting and training the next generation of humanitarian leaders as one of my most crucial responsibilities.  I hope to be a platform where others can use me to reach their potential.  All of them did a fantastic job, and now the next generation of EWB students are going apply what they learned in Estanque de Leon to a water project in Africa,” he said.  

Bell, Flores, Erin Clancy ’04, Stacy Gardner ’06, and Adam and Melissa Ward, were the senior team members working with about 17 underclassmen and Nadine Thor, director Environmental Health and Safety at Kettering, to deliver and install the filters.

The team provided 45 biosand filters to service all 57 families living in the Estanque de Leon community. Preliminary water testing showed that the biosand filters are successful in removing the majority of parasites and bacteria present in the village water supply.

Bell’s participation in the Estanque de Leon water project transformed the lives of villagers accustomed to contaminated water resources and the illnesses it caused. It also transformed Bell and his EWB team members.

“The people of Estanque de Leon showed me that love is always in the present and not in the future or past, and that happiness is always in front of me for the taking,” said Bell. “I no longer have the thoughts, ‘Oh, I’ll be happy when I have “this” or if “that” happens.’”

“In addition, the magic of so many people lending a helping hand back home in the states was really inspiring. Time and time again, I was inspired by the people who asked, ‘How can I help?’ when they heard the story. One example that sticks out in my mind is when I wanted to test a ceramic pot filter concept.  I went to the Flint Institute of Arts and met with ceramics artist and instructor Guy Adamek. He surprised me with his enthusiasm and let me use his supplies and facility to build prototypes.”

After installing the biosand filter in Estanque de Leon, Bell and Flores realized they had hit upon a simple solution to a growing problem in developing countries world wide. They have decided to take the Estanque de Leon water project to a wider audience.

“Mario Flores and I realize that we have a piece of information that can help a lot of people,” said Bell, “considering that contaminated water affects more than 1.3 billion people in the world. But we have a solution! The technology is effective and only costs about $60 in materials per filter.  

“There is only one thing keeping this information from reaching the people that need it the most and that’s ‘human-will,’ someone to just do it,” said Bell.  “I’m not sure if I’m the best one for the job, but I’ll do the best that I can,” he said of his plan to return to Estanque de Leon and contact other small villages in Mexico about using biosand filters.

“I love seeing the magic of everyday people putting together their efforts and abilities to make some powerful things happen.  So many people are willing to give of themselves when given the opportunity,” he said.

In preparing and planning for his return to Mexico, Bellis finding that willingness in unexpected places. An engineer who saw the group’s video on YouTube offered to help Bell build a do-it-yourself wind turbine to give him a little electricity in the desert, a girl from Australia randomly found his website ( and donated to the project, NOW foods sent him a case of seed sprouts as a source of dense nutrition in the desert, and his fifth grade teacher (that he hadn’t seen in years) sent him a $200 check after reading his story in a St. Louis, Mo., newspaper.  

“By doing this kind of work, I get to experience random acts of kindness every day,” said Bell. “I can’t imagine anything better than that!” 

Not only has Bell experienced the generosity of strangers, he has learned a lot about himself. “I thought that the people of Estanque de Leon would be the main benefactors of this project and I would be the hero on my white horse. In the middle of the project, I realized that I was the main benefactor.  

“I experienced a liberation in my thoughts as all the things that I used to stress-out about started to melt away.  The reward for the project wasn’t seeing the filters built; the rewards came every day for me, as I learned more about who I am as a person.  So I want to continue this work because it teaches me something about myself every day, and the more I give, the more vibrant and rich life becomes.”

Where he once saw engineering as a way to make a comfortable living, Bell now sees engineering as a way to transform the world. “I realized that Kettering engineers are a powerful force that could literally move mountains in this world,” he said.

Despite the initial water project receiving funding through a grant to Kettering University from General Motors, Bell is more interested in what can be done at a grassroots level than seeking corporate sponsorship.  His return-to-Mexico project is mostly funded through small individual donations.  

Through his non-profit organization “Globalize This,” Bell and Flores created a t-shirt design they are going to be using as a fundraiser in the month of February. “Six students at different campuses around the United States and even Canada have accepted the small challenge of selling 20 shirts each,” he said.  “Mario and I will also be looking toward civic groups and grants to cover some of the larger costs, like the plane ticket, allowing more of the individual contributions to go directly toward water filtration.”

His plan is to go to Mexico in March for approximately six months to gather data on how the filters are performing, and possibly visit other villages to share the biosand filter concept. He is trying to get enough funding to cover: the cost of one round trip ticket to and from Mexico, food expenses for six months so he is not an economic burden on the village and an alternative source of energy (i.e. wind or solar) to run a laptop in the desert  and a laptop.

He and Flores also hope to raise funds to build and spread water filtration technology to other villages. To help accomplish all this he is building a network of supporters in different fields including engineers, writers, artists, programmers and others, who can donate their skill whenever the need arises.

Some of that support is already at work addressing the need. “Mario Flores and his family have gone above and beyond in their contribution to this work,” said Bell. “His family lives in Saltillo, Mexico, and provides a lot of the in-country logistical support.

“The other EWB members, although now busy with jobs and surviving the economy, continue to be a source of support in many ways, whether it’s advice about how to make a webpage or by making a donation.

“And the faculty at Kettering also continues to be a source of support. Professor Laura Sullivan and Nadine Thor are what Cornel West calls, ‘long-distance runners for justice.’  They have inspired me and so many other Kettering students to become great individuals in our own way,” he said.

From jaded 20-year-old engineering student to an engineer with a cause, Bell sums it up this way: “Building water filters has become my worship of sorts. I show my appreciation for life and everything that I have one water filter at a time. I’m addicted to forming relationships and to being of service to others.”

Written by Dawn Hibbard