It was 2016 when Jennifer Leonard took 10 days off from her job as a brake engineer at Ford Motor Company to embark on the trip of a lifetime.
From Dearborn, Mich., Leonard made her way to Accra and surrounding villages in Ghana to visit two children she sponsors through Compassion International, a child advocacy ministry. Through monthly donations, Leonard provides the children with educational opportunities, medical care, supplements to prevent malnutrition and other necessities for good health.
Leonard’s journey to Ghana would become more than a happy visit. In addition to connecting hearts across the Atlantic Ocean, the trip would lead Leonard to her next big project — improving health and sanitary conditions in the less-developed parts of the world. The beginning of that voyage will be in rural India with the help of the Bill Ford Better World Challenge.
The impetus for the project was the lack of sanitary facilities for people living in so many parts of the underdeveloped world, Leonard witnessed. Outside of Ghana’s larger cities, there are no public bathrooms; homes rarely have toilets; there is no privacy; and there are no means for the most basic hygiene practices, including handwashing. In rural villages, people relieve themselves wherever they deem appropriate — even in public.
“You read about situations like this; but until you are there and experience it, you really cannot fathom it,” Leonard said. “When I had to go to the restroom, I didn’t know what to do. I tried to hold it for as long as possible. It truly changed my perspective.”
Beyond the obvious unsanitary conditions and resulting diseases people in these areas often suffer, Leonard also was concerned about the safety of women and girls. During menstruation, they seek privacy in remote areas where they risk assaults, Leonard said. At that time, teen girls often skip a week of school.
Leonard returned home to Dearborn, Mich. filled with a new compassion and determined to do more where possible, she envisioned a plan to help.
Funds from Ford
The Bill Ford Better World Challenge recently announced $200,000 in funding support for two international projects to improve health and sanitation conditions in India and Mexico. The grants are part of the Ford Motor Company Fund’s annual community improvement campaign, which launched in 2015 as part of the 10th anniversary of the Ford Volunteer Corps.
Jointly funded by Bill Ford and the Ford Fund, BFBWC provides employee volunteers the opportunity to work with community activists where Ford does business worldwide. The program encourages employees and community partners to submit ideas that solve global problems, including issues surrounding mobility and scarcity of food, water and shelter.
Leonard, who submitted a sanitation proposal earlier this year, received $140,000 for a program that will benefit three rural villages of the Kancheepuram District, near Chennai, India where Ford operates an assembly and engine plant.
The funding will provide 100 residential SMART Toilets in each of the villages. The acronym stands for “Safe and Sustainable, Maintainable, Affordable, Recyclable (waste), Technically perfect."
The SMART Toilet facilities will be equipped with lighting and means for handwashing and provide twin pits for sustainable use and maintenance. Funds will also provide programs that teach area residents about good hygiene and sanitation practices.
Families who receive the SMART Toilets will be required to make a one-time contribution equivalent to $46. Construction is expected to begin in January, 2018.
While Leonard expects the end result to be gratifying, the daily reality of managing an international volunteer effort is taxing.
Since receiving funds, she has spent hours researching potential India-based partners. Each week, in the wee hours of the morning, she holds phone meetings with the chosen nonprofit to work out details, such as permits that need to be secured, how long the project will take and how much it will cost.
There is a language barrier to overcome as well, but she engaged employees at the Ford Chennai plant to help. Upwards of 3,000 Ford plant employees are available to assist with construction and education. These staffers will also work with the nonprofit and talk to villagers about the need for toilets and basic hygiene.
“I am coming up on 31 years at Ford, and this volunteer project has been the highlight of my career,” said Leonard. “I am helping people who would never have the funds to do this on their own. It’s tough, but it’s been an amazing experience.”
Beyond the India project, BFBWC funds will also build a community center in Guayacan, Mexico, near Ford’s Hermosillo plant.
There, residents can obtain uncontaminated water, have access to flushing toilets and receive a free meal every Sunday, provided by a local church. The facility plans to serve 750 families, who also will have the opportunity to install in-home water filtration system for a one-time payment of $5. Ford is working with Aqua Clara International, a Michigan-based nonprofit, to provide the water filters.
“I am extremely proud of the work our employees are doing to bring about positive change around the world,” said Bill Ford, executive chairman. “Access to basic necessities is not something that can be taken for granted in many communities, and these projects will have an immediate and positive impact on the quality of life for so many people.”
After only two years, the BFBWC has seen impressive results.
In 2016, the Thailand Clean Water Community Project received a $200,000 grant to upgrade clean water access with purification systems, wash basins and restrooms in nine rural schools. Ford volunteers have also helped area residents plant hundreds of banana trees and vegetables to be served in school lunches and sold to generate income that can expand the schools’ agriculture initiatives
Eventually, the Thailand program will improve 13 schools, benefiting up to 3,300 people. Nearly 200 Ford employees have traveled to the Chanthaburi region (about 130 miles from Bangkok) to assist with improvement projects.
Also receiving $250,000 in funding was the GoodTurn app project, which was introduced in the Apple store this summer. The app, managed out of the Metro Detroit region, connects volunteers from Ford Motor Company to community nonprofits in need of transportation help.
The brainchild of Cecil Saint Pierre, a former conflict mineral’s analyst in Ford Purchasing Department, and developed by the University of Detroit Mercy, GoodTurn is also used to deliver relief aid from Michigan to victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
The Ford and Detroit Mercy team continue to update the app and eventually plan to make the technology available to Android users and offer a web interface.