May 17, 2021 / Rockdale Academy

"This is life-changing for our school."

- Dr. Jaren Finney, principal at Rockdale Academy

SonLight Power has completed the first phase of Rockdale Academy’s urban learning garden in Avondale — and its shine was immediate.

On April 17, SonLight Power staff and volunteers installed nearly 30 solar panels to complete a 12.5-kilowatt solar array on the south-facing lower roof of the school. The sheen of the array’s surface not only reflected the Cincinnati spring sky, it also reflected a renewed sense of what’s possible for the students, teachers and staff who arrived at Rockdale the following Monday.

“This is life-changing for our school,” Dr. Jaren Finney, Rockdale Academy principal, explained to SonLight Power’s Kevin Sasson on the day of installation. “With this being Rockdale Academy and our Vision 2020 being global conservation — healthy me, healthy you, healthy world — we’re going to make it happen right here today.”

The solar array brings the Avondale community one step closer to having a 1-acre urban farm and net-zero greenhouse that will provide hands-on instruction and fresh food access for students and neighbors.

This summer, our partners at the Cincinnati Zoo will lead efforts to complete the urban garden at Rockdale, including the reconstruction of a large greenhouse donated for this project in an area adjacent to the solar array. Once the greenhouse is in place, SonLight Power will return to wire the solar array to the greenhouse and put the finishing touches on a grid-tied solar power system with a lithium-ion battery bank that will offset most of the greenhouse’s power needs.

For the 700 children at Rockdale Academy, as well as students at nearby South Avondale Elementary, the urban learning garden will equip them with a living classroom that will elevate the learning experience in science, agriculture, commerce, health and wellness.

"It's going to give Rockdale the ability to turn sustainability into real teaching and real experience. The design that the zoo is bringing to it, which is of course highlighted by the greenhouse and by the incredible SonLight Power contribution — it’s going to open the eyes, the minds and the imaginations of these kids in such an extraordinary way.”

- Charley Frank, Executive Director of the Reds Community Fund

The project also aims to combat Avondale’s dire need for nutritional access. The community is considered a fresh food desert, which means residents must travel outside their own neighborhood to find fresh produce necessary for a healthy diet. The urban learning garden will feature a farmers’ market where Avondale residents can access fresh, locally grown food.

“It’s all about giving back to the environment and making sure that we stay healthy,” Dr. Finney said. “It ties right into what our vision is for the school.”

Partners Aligned with God's Timing

The design and installation of the solar power system at Rockdale is SonLight Power’s contribution to an extensive community makeover effort spearheaded by the Reds Community Fund.

Every year for the past 12 years, the Reds Community Fund has partnered with other Cincinnati organizations to transform local neighborhoods. They improve or construct neighborhood parks, community gardens, play and recreation areas, baseball diamonds and other public spaces. The Community Makeover of Avondale is the Reds Community Fund’s most extensive project yet with six different zones under transformation.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever had something quite as extraordinary as the urban learning garden,” said Reds Community Fund Executive Director Charley Frank. “Having this permanent structure and being able to power it with solar — the educational opportunities are really beyond anything that we’ve ever dreamed of with this project.”

"It's awesome. It’s a sweet story about the blue-chip brands in this town coming together to say, ‘How do we come up with a project here that really matters?’”

- Mark Fisher, Vice President of Facilities, Planning & Sustainability at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

A key partner in the Community Makeover of Avondale is the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden with its landmark grounds located in Avondale. And one of the visionaries behind the urban learning garden concept is the zoo’s vice president of facilities, planning and sustainability, Mark Fisher, who also serves on the SonLight Power board. From the earliest planning stages, Fisher’s excitement around the project has inspired others to think big and challenge the status quo.

“Rockdale Academy is the heart and soul of Avondale,” Mark said. “It’s a global conservation hub for Cincinnati Public Schools, and they’ve struggled to come up with hands-on opportunities for their students to actually see and touch this stuff.”

The project aligns organically with Fisher’s and his team’s engagement with the Avondale community. For the past 10 years, they have made beautification efforts in the area one of the zoo’s priorities by creating pop-up parks, fixing playgrounds and building community gathering spaces. Those efforts often intersect with Fisher’s involvement with SonLight Power, where he has served as a volunteer and board leader with Kevin Sasson for nearly a decade.

“The urban learning garden has been cooking in the background for a couple of years,” Mark said. “When Rockdale approached the zoo and our horticulture team with this idea about the greenhouse, we thought it would be great if we could make it net-zero.”

What followed was a sequence of events best orchestrated by God:

  • The zoo teamed up with the Reds Community Fund, who – thanks to the generosity of P&G and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital – could provide the resources for building the urban learning garden in 2020, but not quite enough to make the greenhouse net-zero with solar power.
  • The pandemic hit, delaying implementation of the urban garden in 2020. The project was pushed to 2021.
  • In late 2020, Kevin received an email from the Johnson Charitable Gift Fund requesting project proposals centered on Greater Cincinnati impact. Any other year, SonLight Power might have been focused on meeting the needs of people living in extreme energy poverty in places like Haiti or Honduras. With the pandemic restricting travel overseas in 2020, SonLight Power explored new ways to align our mission with local and domestic needs.
  • Kevin shared the request for local project proposals with Mark and the SonLight Power board. In response, Mark suggested solar power for the greenhouse in Avondale, an ideal fit for the grant requirements.
  • Together, Kevin, Mark and the SonLight Power team crafted a grant proposal around the solar-powered net-zero greenhouse. The proposal was accepted, and funding approved.

In short, events lined up in just the right way to make the net-zero greenhouse a reality.

“It’s awesome,” Mark said in reflection of how this grand-scale makeover has come together. “It’s a sweet story about the blue-chip brands in this town coming together to say, ‘How do we come up with a project here that really matters?’”

A Bright Future

Support for Rockdale Academy’s urban learning garden will continue even after construction is complete. The zoo is developing curriculum alongside Cincinnati Public Schools that goes hand-in-hand with the solar-powered greenhouse. The curriculum will equip students to learn science and math concepts in innovative ways using the new resources available.

“It’s going to give Rockdale the ability to turn sustainability into real teaching and real experience,” Charley Frank explained. “The design that the zoo is bringing to it, which is of course highlighted by the greenhouse and by the incredible SonLight Power contribution — it’s going to open the eyes, the minds and the imaginations of these kids in such an extraordinary way. Having the zoo’s ongoing commitment to help teach, to help maintain, to help sustain is going to be incredible.”

Energized by the myriad ways the solar-powered urban learning garden will impact the Avondale community, both Charley and Mark look forward to future projects that include SonLight Power and our mission to use solar power to share God’s love with those in need.

“My team looks at SonLight Power and their partners as conduits to get things done,” Mark said. “How do we make sure that we’re not leaving our neighbors behind and that we’re keeping them top-of-mind so that the sustainability tide lifts all boats? That starts with our neighbors, and I see SonLight Power as our partner to make that happen indefinitely.”

“We have gotten to know Kevin and SonLight Power over the past eight years, and we have such an incredible amount of respect for him, the board, the work that they do and their mission and how they go about it,” Charley said. “Were it not for the pandemic, we probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to interact directly with them.”

“I am confident and beyond hopeful that this is just the start,” Charley continued. “Because [SonLight Power] is just an outstanding organization to be associated with, and we’re going to want to keep it going that way for sure.”

We can't wait to see the garden and greenhouse in action. Stay tuned for more updates as the Community Makeover of Avondale continues this summer.

God continues to use the SonLight Power mission to connect and bring people together, both near and far. We’re blessed with partners like the Reds Community Fund and Cincinnati Zoo to make a lasting impact in the places we serve. Are you part of an organization looking for innovative ways to make a lasting impact? Contact us for more information on ways to partner with SonLight Power.

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