It started with a toxic relationship and a spring break trip to Jamaica.
Cyrus Maroofian had been dating his girlfriend for two years — both had become aloof and cold. Jamaica was supposed to reignite that original spark, but it didn’t happen. Instead they fought the entire trip, goading and infuriating each other until she literally upped-and-left him in a nightclub.
“Everyone around me was saying we were bad for each other, that I didn’t see the signs,” said Maroofian, a Bachelor of Science candidate in civil and environmental engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “I don’t know, I guess something was keeping me trapped in it. I was trying to find purpose … maybe?”
Climbing the Blue Mountains on a rickety bus into Jamaica, feeling empty and looking for that purpose, Maroofian passed smiling mountain dwellers catching polluted rain water in little buckets. This was their only source of fresh water. Then, he saw the signs.
He was going to fix Jamaica’s water problems.
It wasn’t the first time Maroofian found purpose in a distant place. In 2012, he went to Guatemala to build a stove for a Mayan family.
“I was mixing cement with this little boy, and he just had the most ecstatic look on his face, like I was doing something so great,” Maroofian recalls. “I realized — wow — how grateful someone can be for so little!”
It might have been that little boy’s face; or the mountain dwellers collecting dirty drops of water with their wonderful smiles; or the time he walked away from totaling his car, unscathed; or the golf ball hitting him square in the eye at summer camp — millimeters from blinding him; or his father giving him some profound Persian advice: “You’re here for a bigger reason.” It might have been all those things playing in his head. One thing was clear — Cyrus Maroofian was coming back to USC with purpose.
The perfect partner
The search for a cure to Jamaica’s water entered every aspect of his life. He wrote research papers on Jamaica’s water quality. He interviewed professors in his department. He called experts in environmental engineering. He reached out to nonprofits and put himself up for jobs. Finally, he called his old buddy Kevin Kassel.
“Kevin started a water conservation club in high school,” Maroofian remembered. “He was the perfect guy to team up with. I told him: ‘I’d literally do anything to help you out.’ ” Kevin said: “Cool. How about bringing this club to USC?”
“Brilliant!” And just like that, Club H2O was born.
“First we called it The H2O Club, but that sounded lame,” Kassel said. “Club H2O has a better a ring to it.”
They made a logo, started working on a website, launched a social media campaign and went after donors. Everything was perfect. Everything until Ghana.
Five filters for $250
One of Kassel’s high school teachers went to visit a local school in Ghana and sent back a chilling report. Three hundred schoolchildren were exposed to lethal drinking water. Every year they had more than 150 cases of waterborne diseases. Kids were dying from drinking water. They didn’t have time to wait around for Club H2O to launch a global campaign.
We needed a simple, compact solution. One that could travel fast — in a backpack.
“We needed a simple, compact solution. One that could travel fast — in a backpack,” Maroofian said.
They settled on a company in Florida — Sawyer — that makes water filters for diehard hikers. One filter costs around $50 and can supply 100 people with clean water for 10 years or 1 million gallons of water. Kassel packed five of the filters in his teacher’s backpack and sent them back to the kids in Ghana.
After a year, there were no reported cases of waterborne diseases.
That 250 bucks saved 300 lives.
“It was a big victory,” said Maroofian, a little beside himself. “How could one little thing do so much? I mean you think about it — five filters – 250 bucks. What can you get with 250 bucks? A nice pair of shoes? A videogame? That 250 bucks saved 300 lives.”
The next trip, Maroofian traveled to Tanzania, where he took his filters to poor villages and demonstrated their use by literally drinking out of their swamps.
He laughed about some of the crazy things he’s done.
“I remember going to this dirty swamp where cattle were bathing and filled up a glass of water. I mean every kind of the disease you’d think of was probably there — flies buzzing all around. There was a kid tending cattle there yelling at me: ‘Don’t drink the water! Don’t drink the water!’ I said watch this. I used my filter and it blew his mind. People gathered around to see this crazy American kid drinking their swamp water, just waiting for me to fall down and die.
“I turned to them and said ‘Anybody want to try? Look, I’m not dying.’ Everybody was skeptical and backed away. And then the most amazing thing happened. This little girl. She wasn’t afraid. She stepped up, took my glass and drank the water. Right there in front of all those older people, this little girl paved the way.”
A world with H2O ambassadors
Club H2O has grown to 50 members and is still growing, but Maroofian and Kassel feel they’ve just begun to scratch the surface. They are sending out H2O ambassadors armed with Sawyer water filters to the developing world. But they want to go further. They envision a worldwide organization that not only provides these simple life-changing solutions but one that also educates the public and provides long-term water sustainability. They also want to design a range of water filters customized to tackle the water problems of specific regions.
Maroofian sees a two-part approach.
“What we’ve learned from Jamaica to Tanzania is that the poorest people live in mountains with almost no access to water. Whatever water there is gets polluted from mining operations or human waste, and it trickles all the way to towns and cities. We have to educate the people at the top of the mountain so we can save the people at the bottom.”
Right now they are relying solely on these willing volunteers who are paying their own way, but one day they hope to be able to sponsor water ambassadors worldwide.
“We want to put a water filter into their backpack and watch it grow into something bigger,” said Maroofian, who called it “a passion.”
That passion keeps Club H2O up at night, following the signs to the next village, the next swamp, the next mountaintop as they continue to expand.
Kassel and Maroofian recently sent a shipment of 64 filters to the people of Nepal who had been most devastated by the April earthquake that ravaged the Gorkha district and shook the Himalayas, cutting off scores of lives from potable water.
Maroofian often smiles to himself when he thinks about the journey that brought him here.
“Yeah, when I look back, I guess something good always comes out when you learn to let go and follow the signs.”