Self-proclaimed “die-hard wolverine” Merry Walker is using her University of Michigan education to improve the lives of individuals and communities in the developing world.
Walker — who holds master’s degrees in both Energy Systems Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at the University — said she had always dreamed of using her passion for engineering and design to help communities in third world countries, which eventually came true when she established the non-profit organization Vort Port International.
Vort Port uses sustainable engineering technologies, like solar power and anaerobic biodigesters — which convert waste into energy — to improve impoverished communities through social enterprise. After living in various places around the world, Walker said she was impacted by the difficult situations she saw and wanted to use her engineering background to help the lives of others.
“I really wanted to take my passion for engineering and design and apply it to communities around the world,” Walker said. “I moved and lived internationally in my childhood in some pretty rough environments and saw that infrastructure and engineering could really improve lives.”
Vort Port was created with the goal of empowering communities through social enterprises after a number of community projects Walker had worked on with University student organizations failed, she said.
“The work we were doing was frustrating, we could only do so much … when we went home the villagers could take (the technology) apart and sell it,” she said. “I wanted to come up with a way to solve that problem and have people around the world take control of their lives and be able to run their own businesses.”
Additionally, Walker said Vort Port strives to empower people in countries the company works with, including India, South Africa and Madagascar, so that they can begin to help themselves in the future by increasing their knowledge about various technologies.
“We are developing educational programs to teach them about how our technology works, how they can fix it, and how everything works so they can run a business themselves,” she said.
Walker said examples of their projects include a solar powered computer lab for a school in India, solar powered lamps for Indian villages and the development of biodigester technologies for communities in Madagascar.
Walker added that Vort Port is funded mainly by donations through fundraisers and is currently trying to obtain corporate sponsorship and grants from the federal government.
Due to the fact that the organization relies mainly on donations for funding, Walker said all members of the organization are volunteers.
“It’s really incredible,” she said. “We have over 35 members who put in 10-to-20 hours a week on a volunteer basis. They all just really enjoy doing it.”
There are currently two University engineering students who are volunteering with Vort Port, according to Walker. She added that she is looking to recruit more University students of any academic background as volunteers for her organization in the fall.
“We’re looking to grow the number of people and projects we have … if you have an idea and you want to come to us, we will help you incubate and execute it,” she said.