Monday, December 20, 2010


(Daily Herald) - By Jamie Sotonoff

Lisa Ballantine repeatedly describes herself as “just a mom,” but she also provides clean drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people in Third World countries and helps prevent the spread of cholera in Haiti.

Using what she learned from Northern Illinois University ceramics arts teacher Manny Hernandez, Ballantine invented a clay water filter that can be made by local people in developing countries using readily available materials.

There's a patent pending on her FilterPure water filtration system, and it's become a nonprofit business with factories in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Tanzania. Ballantine's long list of customers includes Addison-based Lutheran Church Charities, Oxfam, Save the Children and the World Health Organization.

“We're growing so fast right now, our biggest challenge is meeting demand,” said Ballantine, 43, a former Wayne resident who now lives in Elk Grove Village. “We hope to build another three factories in Haiti next year.”

In a few weeks, Ballantine will break ground on FilterPure's International Training Center in the Dominican Republic, where she spends half the year with her husband, Michael, who is a developer there.

With encouragement from public health experts at major American universities, Ballantine will train people from all over the world how to make FilterPure filters so they can take that knowledge to all corners of the globe.

“I'm just a mom who started a little project, and now it's taking off,” she said.

An idea is born
Fifteen years ago, Ballantine was a stay-at-home mom who home-schooled her four children and never traveled outside the U.S. In 2000, the entire family spent a life-changing year as missionaries in the Dominican Republic.

“I'm a Christian, and I believe my life is to serve other people,” she said. “But I remember going into these homes and thinking, ‘I'm not leaving them with anything practical they can use.'”

The family returned home in 2001 so the children could finish their educations at Streamwood High School and Wheaton Academy. That's when Ballantine, a college dropout, went through a “What do I do with my life?” quandary. She decided to enroll at NIU and study ceramic arts.

While in a jewelry class taught by Hernandez, she discovered he knew a lot about water filters.

Immediately, she connected that to the lack of potable water in the Dominican Republic and realized she could help people there.

“I told (Hernandez), ‘Teach me everything you know,'” she said.

Ballantine designed an 8-pound ceramic filter made of clay, silver and sawdust. It fits inside a plastic bucket with a tap at the bottom. Dirty water seeps through the filter at a rate of 2 liters per hour, and 99.99 percent of the dangerous bacteria is removed so the water comes out clear and safe to drink.

“It's sustainable in a Third World environment, and that's important,” Ballantine said.

She started manufacturing the filters in the Dominican Republic. Business hummed along, and the factory churned out about 1,000 filters a month, which NGOs (nongovernmental charity organizations) distributed.

Then the devastating earthquake hit Haiti, the country that shares an island with the Dominican Republic, and Ballantine ramped up production. After repeatedly driving her water filters into Haiti, she eventually opened a FilterPure factory there in an old floor and ceiling tile factory and employed locals to run it. Now that factory churns out 1,500 water filters a month the maximum capacity and she is booked with orders for the next six months.

The FilterPure filters, which cost $30 each to produce, are sold for $1 or $2 and can provide a family with clean water for five years. She said it's important to charge people for the filters, or else they place no value on them.

“There are a lot of Americans who want to help, and that's great. But they need to use local people and teach them how to sustain it,” she said. “After the earthquake (in Haiti), what did everyone do? They sent plastic bottles of water. Why did we think that was the solution? ... I saw a pile of empty plastic bottles three stories high.”

Charities often try to help by bringing in unsustainable products like foreign-made filters with short life spans but Ballantine says that provides only temporary help. The FilterPure filters can be made in developing countries by locals, using local materials.

Begging for water
The Ballantines find the situation in Haiti particularly heartbreaking. They don't see any quick fixes to the problems there but say providing people with clean drinking water is a major step forward and will help control the recent cholera outbreak that's killed thousands of people.

“We've seen kids begging for water. Begging. For water. People drinking out of dirty puddles,” said Michael Ballantine, a Palatine native. “It's really bad.”

Michael is proud of his wife and recalled a story of a woman who wanted to help Mother Teresa feed the poor in India and was told to “find your own Calcutta.” He said his wife, perhaps unintentionally, did just that.

“This is her Calcutta,” Michael said.

“My life is a little different than I thought it was going to be,” Lisa adds, laughing. “But I now know that average people can make a difference. I'm just a regular old mom. Anyone can do it. Just go out there and involve yourself.”

To sponsor a filter for a family, or more information on FilterPure, visit

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