Pay it Forward – Matter

By Matt Skoufalos

They called the baby Moses because they didn’t know his real name. He had been recovered from the 30-acre national garbage dump in Dandora, Kenya when scavengers found him discarded in a paper bag. The municipal dumpsite is a huge ecological disaster that nonetheless provides a living for the thousands of Kenyans who pick through it; Moses was one of another of the lives it had sheltered.

He was ultimately able to be revived and stabilized because of the contributions of people half a world away who had dedicated resources and time to creating a two-story, 50-bed, maternity hospital in the middle of a city with mountains of trash. Part of the “Hospital in a Box project” from Matter of St. Louis Park, Minnesota and the Dandora Area Wellness Alliance, whose partners include Notre Dame University, the medical center was created to help save lives in a nation that has an average maternal mortality rate of 488 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Prior to its construction, expectant mothers might have been forced to choose between a two-hour taxi ride to get to the nearest hospital in Nairobi or giving birth on the floor of their homes, which Joe Newhouse, vice-president of strategy and innovation for Matter, summed up as “just not possible.”

“It’s taken an area that has zero access to health care and given it first-world health care,” Newhouse said.

Matter was begun in 2000 on the west side of Minneapolis, “born out of what Minnesota has to offer the world,” he said. In the neighborhood designated as “medical alley” by The Smithsonian, it sprang up alongside the headquarters of such notable enterprises as Medtronics, Boston Scientific, and The Mayo Clinic among some 5,000 companies focused on medical devices.

“There’s a lot of resources here to be able to tap into,” Newhouse said. “That’s what we were born out of.”

Begun as Hope for the City, Matter was the byproduct of business owners Dennis and Megan Doyle of Welsh & Colliers International asking themselves how they can make lasting change in the world. The Doyles had access to a portfolio of real estate properties and a catalogue of relationships with local business leaders. They established the nonprofit as a resource distribution center for Minneapolis, and much of what came in were donated medical items, Newhouse said. To make the best use of those contributions, the organization began working to distribute them to partners in “hard-to-reach, really broken places around the world,” he said.

“It happened organically,” Newhouse said. “We had all these companies that were donating to us or investing in the programs but what we kept getting asked was, ‘Who are the other companies who are working with you?’ As a business, it’s really hard to find companies that share common values and common goals.”

“We created this network called Companies that Matter as an opportunity to connect with other businesses that share that common goal of affecting the health of communities here and around the world,” he said.

As it built a network of health ministers, NGOs, and fellow nonprofit partners, Hope for the City evolved into Matter, an entity with a global focus on eliminating barriers to healthy life. By bolstering the infrastructure of communities in places as far-flung from Minnesota as Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Nigeria, and the Philippines, Matter is working to coordinate long-term solutions to persistent problems of poverty and its effects on population health. Among the first strategies the agency devised was its Hospital in a Box program, which Newhouse described as giving emerging-world hospitals the tools they need to treat the sick and the injured in a dignified way.

“The situation in a lot of these places was just beneath human dignity,” he said; “the lack of clean surfaces and the spread of infectious diseases.”

Matter’s “Farm in a Box” project takes a similar tack, leveraging Minnesota’s traditional strengths in agriculture to provide lasting resources and strategies for rejuvenating unsuccessful subsistence farms. Helping farmers create resilient and diversified farms means teaching them to maximize soil revitalization, crop rotation, and irrigation, Newhouse said.

“Throughout most of the world, the poorest people are farmers, and the community is dependent upon farmers to produce healthy food,” he said. “They’re not really worried about the nutrition of the food. Their yields really keep on going down, and they don’t have the right tools to repair the soil or the equipment.”

Matter also directs its attention to domestic food insecurity with the Matterbox: a meal prep kit designed around the same template as services like Blue Apron, but focused on helping promote healthy eating choices among people living in food deserts.

“A lot of long-term, negative health outcomes rising at drastic rates all depend on how a person eats, and can be prevented in many cases if someone is able to change their eating and their lifestyle,” Newhouse said. “People living in scarcity who are food-insecure, there’s a 30-percent increased rate of diabetes. We really need to make a dent.”

The Matterbox is “a tangible way to show someone what healthy eating can look like,” Newhouse said, and is stocked with healthy food products and nutritionally balanced recipes that can be prepared on a budget. The organization employs the Matterbox in its work with diabetes prevention and juvenile nutrition programs, and with new partnerships, is starting to push into youth camps. It’s part of a plan to energize children to discuss how their families eat, and to promote healthier choices. Newhouse said it’s one of a number of strategies Matter uses to drive individual behavioral changes that empower the people with whom it connects.

“When you look at health care problems in the world, you can’t help but feel like a drop in a bucket,” he said. “What’s one person supposed to do to even make a dent in something so gigantic? We don’t want people to feel like that. We really believe everyone has the power to change their world in their own two hands.”