SEATTLE — As a student at Cornell University, Matthew Oh studied chemical engineering, focusing on municipal water treatment. In 2012, while researching in India, he discovered that only 18 percent of rural communities had access to drinking water, and 30 percent of water delivery systems there were unsustainable. After multiple visits and many conversations with locals, he told The Borgen Project, “I couldn’t just sit here and live my life. I had to do something about it.”
In 2015, while working as a research and development engineer, Oh founded FOREFRONT, an organization dedicated to achieving lasting sustainability for underdeveloped communities. Many of FOREFRONT’s members are part-time volunteers hoping to become full-time employees. The organization’s volunteer-run, donation-funded model reflects its commitment to ensuring every dollar raised goes towards the cause. FOREFRONT has made real progress throughout India at the beginning of a four-phase plan: clean water, education, medical care, social justice.
Just months after its founding, FOREFRONT built a well in rural India that provides 2,000 people with clean water. In Pallapatla, women and children traveled one hour each way, six times a day to gather water for their families. FOREFRONT head of water technologies and sanitation programs Chanwook Park observed that people transported murky, unsanitary water in jars suspended by poles on their backs.
Oh said FOREFRONT’s goal with sustainable water wells was to save them these six hours each day, time which could otherwise be spent attending school. Eighteen months on, FOREFRONT has provided 10,000 people with clean drinking water in India. Engineers test the water twice, on site and at a professional lab in the U.S., ensuring that the wells continue to provide safe water that meets the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to The Guardian, girls make up two-thirds of illiterate 15-to-24-year-olds in India, and sanitation and the lack of clean drinking water are serious barriers to education. Forty-five percent of Indian schools lack usable toilets. Moreover, because many schools lack female-only bathrooms, most girls drop out of school after standard seven when their menstrual cycles normally begin.
In 2016, FOREFRONT sustainability and open innovation expert Alexander Kim collaborated with locals in Pallapatla to discuss possible designs for a new school. A team also visited Blue Bell School, an elite school offering free tuition and separate bathrooms for girls. Seeking to incorporate insights from this visit, FOREFRONT plans to build an inclusive school focused on quality education in 2017.
Oh explained that although many children in India have dreams to better their communities, they lack necessary resources. Discouraged, they quit and fall back into the despair of the poverty cycle again. FOREFRONT took inspiration from a former Pallapatla student who came back to his community and founded the Blue Bell School. They believe FOREFRONT can act as a bridge between children and their dreams to better their communities.
Diane, FOREFRONT’s scope and vendor relations leader, acknowledges the difficulties of working for a non-profit. Yet, she tells The Borgen Project, “We saw the thousands of people our water wells were affecting. Seeing the fruits of our daily work inspires all of us to keep working hard.”
Triumphantly, FOREFRONT has received a grant from the Dream Blue Foundation to build a school with the capacity for 600 students in and around Pallapatla, and this will be its main priority for 2017. Having started with something as simple as clean water, FOREFRONT is on a path toward making real, sustainable change in the lives of rural Indian communities.
– Andy Jung