September 21, 2021 / Rockdale Academy
“It means a lot to be able to have partners that come beside you that are impassioned in that way, that really want to make sure that what they put lasts and that it helps better peoples’ lives. I’m really, really thankful that SonLight Power agreed to work on this project. I’m grateful that we’ve got people like them that really care and will take the time to make sure that these types of resources and these types of things happen for underserved communities.”
— Chelsea Clark, Global Conservation Consultant at Rockdale Academy
This is the third of a three-part blog series featuring various stages of the SonLight Power solar installation at Cincinnati’s Rockdale Academy. For previous stages, visit Bringing Light to Avondale Community Makeover and SonLight Power Joins Cincinnati Reds, Zoo to Transform Avondale.
Chelsea Clark, Global Conservation Consultant for Rockdale Academy in Avondale, is a 6th generation farmer. She was raised with a deep respect for the land and a belief in the importance of being able to grow and harvest your own food.
“My roots are in the soil,” says Chelsea, “and my roots are in planting and growing your own produce — being close to the land and taking care of it.”
That’s why she can’t wait to get started working with her students in Rockdale Academy’s new solar-powered, net-zero greenhouse and urban learning garden. The solar energy system powering the greenhouse was installed this summer by SonLight Power.
“There is something spiritual about being around plant life,” says Chelsea. “To see something grow from start to finish is a glorious feeling.”
Rockdale Academy is part of the Cincinnati Public Schools and has been designated a Vision 2020 Global Conservation School. The program teaches students how to transform the Avondale community and the world while developing into globally minded advocates and leaders.
The solar-powered greenhouse and urban learning garden are cornerstones of the Reds Community Fund’s Community Makeover in Avondale. They will support Rockdale’s conservationist mission of encouraging personal health, wellness, and sustainability by providing hands-on instruction and fresh food access for students and neighbors.
“This is about transforming a community’s perspective, access, and an educational opportunity for our students,” says Chelsea. “We’re talking about health and nutrition, and access in a place that lacks a lot of fresh food. We’re talking about educational opportunities that will expand their horizons as they move on.”
From Fresh Food Desert to Oasis
Growing up without fresh food is all too real for children and their families in Avondale, the Cincinnati neighborhood home to Rockdale Academy. The area is considered a fresh food desert — an area with a predominance of low-income residents who have limited access to affordable and nutritious food.
This scarcity can lead to a variety of negative health outcomes, including significantly shorter lifespans than the residents of Avondale’s neighboring, more affluent communities.
“We’ve learned that mission fields like Cincinnati, Honduras, Appalachia, Haiti, and Puerto Rico may seem vastly different on the surface, but they all have a common thread. Regardless of geography, those we serve want to know there are people out there who care about them. Our SonLight Power teams come alongside and demonstrate in real, lasting ways that we care and that God loves them deeply.”
— Kevin Sasson, SonLight Power Executive Director
To address the issue of fresh food scarcity and share God’s love through solar energy, SonLight Power teamed with Rockdale Academy, Cincinnati Zoo, P&G, Cincinnati Children’s and a host of other blue-chip Cincinnati brands as part of the Reds Community Fund’s 2020 Community Makeover in Avondale.
Because of pandemic-related restrictions last year, the 2020 Makeover took place this summer. It is the Reds Community Fund’s most extensive project yet and includes the creation of a one-of-a-kind Urban Learning Garden and net-zero greenhouse at Rockdale.
With the pandemic restricting mission travel to places SonLight Power would typically serve, 2020 opened our eyes to projects closer to home that align with our mission. Equipping the greenhouse at Rockdale with solar power was an ideal missional fit.
The original Makeover plans called for the greenhouse to be powered by solar energy, but the funding was unavailable to move forward with those plans. The Makeover organizers didn’t want to burden Rockdale Academy with an extra utility burden to power the greenhouse, so SonLight Power was able to fill that need.
“We’ve learned that mission fields like Cincinnati, Honduras, Appalachia, Haiti, and Puerto Rico may seem vastly different on the surface, but they all have a common thread,” explains SonLight Power Executive Director, Kevin Sasson. “Regardless of geography, those we serve want to know there are people out there who care about them. Our SonLight Power teams come alongside and demonstrate in real, lasting ways that we care and that God loves them deeply.”
In fact, it was a series of God-inspired events that led to SonLight Power playing a major role in the Community Makeover in Avondale:
- In late 2020, SonLight Power learned of the need for solar energy in the Avondale Community Makeover project and successfully applied for grant funding to make the solar-powered, net-zero greenhouse a reality.
- In April 2021, SonLight Power staff and volunteers installed solar panels to complete a 12.5-kilowatt solar array on the south-facing lower roof at Rockdale Academy.
- In July, our partners at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden led efforts to complete the Urban Learning Garden at Rockdale, including the reconstruction of the donated greenhouse near the solar array. The Urban Learning Garden was officially opened to the public in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 29.
- In August and September, SonLight Power returned to Rockdale to complete the final elements of the Community Makeover project – installing the solar inverters and lithium battery bank in a new equipment shed adjacent to the greenhouse, then wiring everything together so that renewable energy from the sun is now generating electricity for the greenhouse.
The solar installation is complete. The Urban Learning Garden is already popping with colors of ripe tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and other vegetables. Now that students and teachers are back at school, administrators at Rockdale are planning an Urban Learning Garden reveal party and orientation to the greenhouse on September 30 for the entire Avondale community.
Taking STEM Education to New Levels
Together with horticulture specialists at the Cincinnati Zoo, Chelsea is developing curriculum to not only encourage STEM learning, but also to introduce Rockdale Academy students to new foods and give them the tools and access for living a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.
“This will all be new curriculum, because we haven’t had the advantage of being able to do this before,” explains Chelsea. “The goal is for any class — social studies, science, math — to be able to use this greenhouse in a hands-on, educational manner. There will be overarching themes that the entire school will get, like soil conservation, composting basics, greenhouse functions, solar energy, seed sowing and germination, etc. But the different grade levels will have different learning experiences.”
She already has plans for a cabbage-growing contest for grades K-2. Grades 3-4 will be in charge of the Youth Gardening Ambassador program. Grades 5-6 will act as the management team, making the seed calendar in the fall and overseeing greenhouse maintenance.
The Community Makeover project in Avondale also features a farmers’ market where the students will sell the flowers, fruits, and vegetables they produce in the greenhouse.
“[Students] will have to understand yield, profit margins, cost,” says Chelsea. “The fact that we have solar energy means it’s going to be less of a cost, but they will have to factor in what happens in the winter. Profits from the market will also ensure the sustainability of the whole project, providing funds for buying additional seeds, equipment, and other materials.”
Chelsea also emphasizes the less tangible benefits and transferable skills that the greenhouse curriculum will yield.
“The greenhouse will help students build self-esteem,” Chelsea continues. “There are mental health benefits that one gets from being around plant life. There’s environmental stewardship that you get to see first-hand. There’s scientific achievement. There’s problem-solving and inquiry. Those are probably the two most sought-after transferable skills that our students need no matter what trade or profession they pick up. There’s working in teams. Being able to think critically. Decision-making.” The list goes on.
“This is about transforming a community’s perspective, access, and an educational opportunity for our students. We’re talking about health and nutrition, and access in a place that lacks a lot of fresh food. We’re talking about educational opportunities that will expand their horizons as they move on.”
— Chelsea Clark, Global Conservation Consultant at Rockdale Academy
Shining Our Light in Avondale
“SonLight Power has been a blessing to Rockdale,” says Rockdale Academy principal, Dr. Jaren Finney. “The installation of the solar array is an asset to Rockdale as we focus on Global Conservation and model ‘Healthy Me, Healthy World’. Having a greenhouse that will operate year-round and allow students to grow crops throughout the year will be beneficial to students, staff and the Avondale community.”
SonLight Power is excited for the opportunity to enact our mission and equip a community in need so close to home. We can’t wait to witness the impact this solar energy project will have in our own backyard as our Avondale neighbors now have access to a sustainable source of fresh food within their community.
“It means a lot to be able to have partners that come beside you that are impassioned in that way, that really want to make sure that what they put lasts and that it helps better peoples’ lives,” says Chelsea. “I’m really, really thankful that SonLight Power agreed to work on this project. I’m grateful that we’ve got people like them that really care and will take the time to make sure that these types of resources and these types of things happen for underserved communities. It means a lot.”
For more information: SonLight Power Joins Cincinnati Reds, Zoo to Transform Avondale