Classrooms: Amherst nonprofit’s solar project make big impact in Haitian community

  • Amherst native Marty Ross with children at Maranatha School. A supporter of Opportunities for Communities, Ross envisioned the project and rallied co-workers at United Technologies Aerospace Systems in Windsor Locks, Conn., to win a competitive UTAS Green Initiative Mini Grant. Then in January this year, he and OfC President Doug Albertson helped a team of Les Cayes residents install a small solar panel system at a school. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A geometry lesson at Maranatha School in Les Cayes, Haiti. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A sixth-grade class at Maranatha School in Les Cayes, Haiti, where Opportunities for Communities, of Amherst, helped install a solar power system to give the school reliable electricity. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A team from Opportunities for Communities installs solar panels at Maranatha School. The system is now providing the school with reliable electricity. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 7/17/2018 11:01:31 PM

Editor’s vote: Chris Volonte is an adviser for Amherst nonprofit Opportunities for Communities. Here, she explains the organization’s efforts to install a small solar panel system at a school in Les Cayes, Haiti, a coastal town of about 70,000 people.

Students attending classes in Les Cayes, Haiti, are experiencing something new this summer — reliable electric power in their classrooms, thanks to solar panels installed this year by Amherst nonprofit Opportunities for Communities Inc.

In addition to powering necessities such as lights and fans, the panels will make possible computer training, sewing classes and evening community activities — all previously unattainable due to the unreliable power grid.

OfC supporter Marty Ross, an employee of United Technologies Aerospace Systems (UTAS) in Windsor Locks, Conn., envisioned the project and rallied co-workers to win a competitive UTAS Green Initiative Mini Grant. Then in January this year, he and OfC President Doug Albertson helped a team of Les Cayes residents install the system.

Immediately, the school was able to activate previously unpowered fans, bringing welcome relief to students and teachers in hot, stuffy classrooms.

The solar panels were installed at Maranatha School in the Simon neighborhood of Les Cayes. For almost two decades, school headmaster Amos Filius has succeeded in teaching hundreds of children while having very few resources, achieving academic success above the national standard. Now, reliable electricity will empower his students to reach even higher.

Next, OfC and the Haitian team hope to expand the solar electricity system to run a freezer in the kitchen and an electric pump for the school’s water well. After that, they hope to add a computer learning center and sewing machines for occupational training classes.

With a mission to link learning communities across national boundaries, OfC connects U.S.-based college students and other adult learners with students and teachers in Les Cayes, Haiti.

The goal is to create mutual benefits. U.S participants benefit from having the opportunity to create and execute projects to improve conditions and enhance economic development potential within the partner communities. The Haitian communities benefit from the influx of resources and programs generated by OfC program participants.

Recently, educators from Saugerties, New York, traveled to Les Cayes to mentor Maranatha teachers, and University of Massachusetts public health students supported community efforts to address issues such as sanitation and reproductive health.

“OfC arose from a desire to assist Haitian communities in improving their living conditions, and from the conviction that the best way to help people is to help them learn,” said President Albertson, one of OfC’s founders. “To that end, most of our projects revolve around strengthening the community and looking for ways to support students and teachers.”

One of OfC’s most significant projects is Lekòl Dete (“Summer School”), which unites indentured servant (“Restavek”) and free children for a four-week summer school program that fosters mutual respect while enhancing critical thinking skills.

“Our hope is that as servant and free children grow and learn together, they will realize that the Restavek system limits children’s potential to develop and contribute to society, and should be dismantled,” said OfC board member Ken Mundt, whose daughter Amanda Mundt originated the program in 2011. “Success can be measured by the lasting friendships formed among children living Lekòl Dete’s slogan, ‘we all are one’”

True to the spirit of “we are all one,” the solar panel system powering Lekòl Dete’s activities this summer came about through the united efforts of a dedicated team of U.S. and Haitian participants. The UTAS grant provided funding to buy a 400-watt solar kit that was shipped to Haiti, where OfC supporters John and Diane Vrooman received the kit at the Les Cayes airport.

Then Albertson and Ross traveled to Haiti with additional supplies. Installation was led by Wilbert Eliscar, OfC’s Lekòl Dete director and an engineering student at American University of Les Cayes “who can do just about anything,” according to Albertson. OfC’s Haitian Project Coordinator, Edilson Timothe, made connections with local tradesmen and suppliers.

Under Eliscar’s direction, custom frames were built, concrete footings poured, panels hoisted onto the roof, a charge controller and inverter mounted indoors, and all components connected. With assistance from Ross, Albertson, and additional community members, the installation was completed in two days.

“OfC thanks UTAS on behalf of Maranatha School and the hundreds of people who gain from this project,” Albertson said. “It is astounding how many lives can be helped by seemingly small gifts.”

To see the solar installation in action, watch

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