Volunteers working through the Solar Liberty Foundation navigated official corruption and geographic challenges to bring electricity to a village on an island off the coast of Haiti, where a crew earlier this month installed a donated solar array on the roof of a local school.
The team from the Buffalo area spent three days installing a 4-kilowatt solar-power system at the Grace School and Orphanage in the village of Grann Plaine, on Ile-a-Vache, providing badly needed electricity for light, refrigeration and a water-filtration system.
“I’m thrilled. It’s a life-changing event for the schoolchildren and the villagers,” Paige L. Mecca, executive director and founder of Solar Liberty Foundation, said in an interview.
The foundation, based in Amherst, is a nonprofit that serves developing countries and is named for its largest donor, the solar installation company.
The group has donated numerous solar cookers, which use the power of the sun to cook food and sterilize water, and in 2009 donated a solar system to a medical facility in Haiti.
Mecca said the Solar Liberty Foundation learned about the Grace School and Orphanage through Steve Biegner, a Clarence resident who runs an organization called Still in One Piece Crisis Services and who raised money to help build the school.
The school serves 450 students, some of whom moved to the island after they were orphaned by the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country. They are served a hot lunch, and for many it’s their only meal of the day, Mecca said.
“[Biegner] just kept coming after me. He is so persistent, and he’s a force of nature,” said Mecca, the founder and president of Allegro Power, which specializes in solar electrification installations, whose brothers, Nathan and Adam Rizzo, started Solar Liberty.
Mecca said the foundation agreed about 18 months ago to donate and install the array at the Grace School. The $25,000 cost of an array of that size was covered by the foundation and by money raised by Biegner, Mecca said.
Further, Craig Rung covered the cost of shipping the container that held the solar panels, batteries and other components of the array.
A team put together by the foundation had expected to begin installing the array in October, but their work was delayed when the shipment was held up in Haitian customs by officials hoping to extract more money from the donors, Mecca said.
Rung ended up making a sizable additional payment, but the customs officials still refused to release the container, she said.
That’s when the organization turned to the U.S. State Department and the office of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to get their help in releasing the shipment.
Even after it was released, the container had to be driven for five hours by truck from Port-au-Prince to the closest community to the island on the Haitian mainland, where the parts were transferred – one at a time – to a tiny boat for the voyage to Ile-a-Vache, Mecca said.
Once they got to the island, the pieces of the solar array had to be carried, by person or donkey, from the coast to the school in Grann Plaine.
A team of four – Biegner, Rung, Chris Flatau and Michael Leone – worked with village residents to install the panels on the roof of the school. The island doesn’t have an electrical grid, so villagers welcomed the solar array, Mecca said, plugging cellphones into every available outlet.
“When we flipped the switch, a round of applause could be heard throughout the village, and children flocked to the school to complete their homework,” Biegner said in an email.
Biegner also brought two laptop computers and an iPad tablet to the school, and the foundation donated 520 pairs of Crocs, sandals and gym shoes that went down in the same shipping container.
During their trip to the island, the team scoped out three other schools where the foundation and its volunteers plan to install solar arrays in 2013, in addition to five installations planned in Tanzania, Mecca said.
Anyone wishing to donate to the Solar Liberty Foundation can do so through www.solarliberty.org.