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‘Low-tech, high-thinking’ solutions for a challenged world

Academy alum is helping to bring clean water to impoverished nations

An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in early 2015 concluded that, against a common perception that today’s younger generation—millennials—are self-absorbed, apathetic and tuned out to the world at large, they are in fact as tuned in or even more tuned in than the generation that preceded them.

Indeed, the poll found there actually was an increase in young Americans who say that citizens have a very important obligation to participate in community service, whether on a voluntary basis or not.

And according to data from the Corporation for National and Community Service, 20% of adults 30 and under said they’ve worked or volunteered for the betterment of their community, up from 14% in 1989.

Against that background, we contacted Natalie Relich, a 2001 graduate of The Grosse Pointe Academy, who already has devoted a significant portion of her 28-year-old life to making the world a better place for its citizens.

Relich currently is executive director of the OHorizons Foundation, a nonprofit based in New York City, that is working to improve the health, livelihood, and productivity of hungry and thirsty people around the world.

A public policy major at the University of Michigan, Relich finished her university career at NYU with a master’s degree in public administration. She said she decided to get an MPA in New York because she’s always wanted to go into the field of international development and New York seemed like a great place to study this since it’s home to many development and internationally focused organizations.

But even though in college she considered public policy likely her life’s calling, it wasn’t until Relich did more of her own research on a particularly troubling environmental issue on the planet that she eventually jumped in with both feet to try to affect real change for people—specifically for people suffering from a lack of clean water and sanitation.

Simple solution

“Around the world, a child dies about every thirty seconds from diarrhea,” Relich said, “And it’s typically caused by lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation. To help combat this, my organization, OHorizons, works with concrete ‘biosand filters’ (BSFs), which are water-filtration devices for household use in developing countries such as Bangladesh and Mali.”

Photo: GPA alum Natalie Relich (’01), far right, in Bangladesh after building molds to be used for special water-filtration devices.

She said the BSF is a relatively simple solution—”We call it a low-tech, high-thinking solution”—perfect for areas of the world without many resources for more expensive, conventional water treatment.

“The body of the filter is made out of concrete and inside it has sand and gravel that filter out pathogens in the water,” she said. “Basically, it filters water the same way natural groundwater filtration works, using gravity and no complicated or expensive parts, making it ideal for remote, poor communities.”

Concrete BSFs originally were invented by a Canadian professor in the 90s, and were traditionally cast in a steel mold in which concrete is poured and cured. Relich said the steel molds are heavy, expensive, and typically require a skilled and experienced welder, which can be quite difficult to find in rural, impoverished parts of the world.

“So my organization invented a wood mold as a very low-cost alternative to the steel molds,” she said  “It makes the same BSF, but at a fraction of the cost and weight and anyone can make it—even with very little or no construction experience. In fact, all of our technical materials are open-source on our website and available to anybody anywhere to download.”

Photo: Relich, left, is helping Bangladeshis make molds that will be used for special water-filtration devices.

In 2014, OHorizons did pilot programs with these inexpensive BSFs in Bangladesh, Ecuador and Mali, which went very well, according to Relich, ultimately providing nearly 1,200 people with clean water. “Next year, we will be expanding our work even further in Bangladesh through a local partner, ultimately bringing clean water to 10,000 people,” she said. “We’re also trying to forge new partnerships in other countries to expand our impact.”

From yellow cabs to rickshaws

Relich acknowledges that while it’s truly worth it when you see the fruits of their labor, the work she and her crew does is not without stress.

“The areas where we go typically are pretty remote,” she said. “For example, to get to where we were working in Bangladesh, I had to fly into Dhaka, the country’s capital, take a short flight to another city within Bangladesh, take a five-hour car ride, and then a short motorcycle ride to get to my hotel since the roads were very narrow and cars couldn’t get there. We had to take a rickshaw to our partner’s office everyday and didn’t see cars for several days at a time. It really puts things into perspective when you see how other people live—away from bustling and noisy cities, cars, taxi cabs, and a lot of things that we consider part of our daily lives, such as television, high-speed Internet, smartphones, air conditioning, clean, running water, and electricity that always works.”

While it appears the Brooklyn-resident Relich was destined for the work she’s now doing, she admits it took her awhile to figure out her exact path and how specifically she wanted to focus her career. And how it will develop going forward.

Photo: Ecuadorians are shown building special molds designed by Relich and her company, OHorizons.

“I have always considered helping people and trying, even if in a small way, to make the world a better place to be my life’s work,” she said. “But while I don’t know if I will always be working for a nonprofit or in the water space, I think the kind of work I’m doing now, empowering people to improve their lives and working with poor, marginalized communities, will always be something that I am passionate about and will continue to do for years to come.”

Singing the U.S. presidents

Relich’s interest in public policy and service to the community actually began to form at the Academy.

“I had a lot of memorable teachers at GPA, but Mrs. (Mary Jo) Johnson, my middle-school social studies teacher, stands out,” Relich said. “She, to this day, is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, and I’ve been fortunate to have some truly inspiring teachers in my life. She was tough, but she so obviously loved her job and the subject she was teaching. I still remember various facts and dates she taught us during the American Revolution section of class. And it was her class that ultimately got me interested in government and history and set me on this path of studying public policy in college and getting me where I am today.”

So while Relich, whose three brothers also attended GPA, is more than 14 years removed from the Academy, there are many, many more GPA memories still there for the asking.

“So many,” she said. “And the older I get, the more affinity I have for the Academy as I realize how important and formative my time there was.

“I vividly recall our 8th-grade trip to France and Spain and the 8th-grade play,” she said. “Being able to travel to Europe at a young age is a fairly rare experience, and now that I’ve had the chance to travel to other parts of the world (about 15 countries and counting), I realize how unique that experience was. Also, the 8th grade play with music teacher Mrs. (Marion) Chrisner was a total blast—we did a mix of scenes from the Wiz and the Wizard of Oz.”

Relich said she’s really an awful singer, dancer, actor—“actually anything to do with the arts,” she said, “but having the space and responsibility to be a part of something creative at the Academy was really special for me.

“Also, thanks to Mrs. Chrisner I can (shockingly) still sing the U.S. presidents in chronological order and the states and their capitals in alphabetical order,” she added. “I also went on a few of science teacher Mr. (Michael) Fultz’s summer trips, which were a ton of fun. I still enjoy going camping and hiking around New York whenever I get the chance.”

But it wasn’t always fun and games at the Academy, Relich is quick to point out.

“I definitely think the Academy helped prepare me academically for high school and even for college in that I developed good study habits and an academic discipline that continued to serve me throughout my years as a student after the Academy.”

About OHorizons

OHorizons is an organization with low barriers to involvement and dedicated to finding, developing, and scaling open-sourced innovations across the four horizons of life: water, energy, agriculture, and economic development. To learn more about the work Relich and OHorizons is doing, go to www.ohorizons.org.

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About The Grosse Pointe Academy
The Grosse Pointe Academy is an independent, coeducational day school serving children age 2-1/2 through Grade 8. We foster an inclusive environment that respects all cultures and religious beliefs. We seek to remain faithful to our heritage as a former Academy of the Sacred Heart and to those who through their Catholic faith and perseverance sought to preserve and enhance the legacy of this past for generations. Incorporated as a non-profit institution, The Grosse Pointe Academy is directed by a Board of Trustees working together to serve the Southeastern Michigan community.
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