Community projects making good things happen

In a time of economic worry, knowing you’ve got options is important. Here are some examples.

by Bruce Stewart – Special to Sylvan Lake News

Job market woes, yet another national bailout discussion, trade figures, it’s all enough to drive the ordinary person up the wall.

Some people are taking action. They’re using a manageable amount of volunteer time, a little bit of cash, and making things happen in their communities.

Best of all, their ideas are quite transportable. “Steal from the best”, as they say.

In the heart of Toronto’s Beach community, a small group of parents had an idea for their school.

Why not use its flat roof to mount some solar panels, generate a little power, and help the school offset the costs of electricity?

The Province of Ontario didn’t set out to make it difficult, but it did take a lot of work to make this happen. They had to form a not-for-profit society, with rigorous rules about who could join it. They had to get a licence as a power producer. It took four years to navigate the paperwork jungle.

But that was also enough time to raise the money necessary to start the project, through little things that could be done on nights and weekends.

They now have a licence to distribute power, and Kew Beach Public School gets first call on the power generated (in exchange for providing their roof for the installation).

The best part of the story? The way they’re set up, they can now grow. They plan to keep moving from school to school, slowly growing community power generation. Everything is kept small enough to be done on a shoestring.

At the last meeting of the East End Sustainability Network, it sounded like it won’t take much generation to start letting the system grow off the payments they receive for providing electricity to the grid.

Another project in New Zealand looks at producing a bit of local food.

Epuni Primary School has 110 students, in a valley near Wellington, the country’s capital. New Zealand’s country primary schools provide school lunch to students.

At the same time, curriculum elements include learning about plants, farm cycles and the like.

A few parents got involved. A corner of the school yard was turned into a small garden that the children could tend. Another corner was the recipient of a number of fruit trees paid for by fundraising.

Classes spend time weeding, pollinating, harvesting, and the like. Teachers are communicating the required curriculum elements while everyone’s working.

Meanwhile, on Wednesdays, two parents started soup-making in the school’s kitchen, using the vegetables from the garden. Students take turns learning how to prepare food and cook it.

The school now grows enough to nearly feed itself, and as the project continues they anticipate having a surplus. The intention is not to sell it, but to give it to the families of the students.

This is an example of what New Zealanders call asset-based community development: using the skills and resources of people in a community to create new capabilities outside the cash economy. Just what you might expect from a country where the largest “corporation” — a major international player in dairy products, Fonterra — is not your typical organization but a member-owned co-operative.

Down in South Island, where the Christchurch earthquakes hit, an asset-based community development effort to share building skills in Lyttelton (originally aimed at building community facilities) was able to swing into reconstruction and repair efforts well in advance of commercial or government solutions.

The Seattle area in the United States has picked up on the notion of asset-based community development as well, and communities in its region are forming various volunteer bodies to share skills, build, and offset high food and energy costs.

Canadians haven’t been sitting around waiting for someone else to it do for them, either. Prince Edward Island has seen the use of crowdfunding — the two main sites are KickStarter.com and Indiegogo.com — to do a number of local projects.

All across the country, there are projects to share skills, do local building, offset the cost of services, feed people, and more.

In a time of economic worry, knowing you’ve got options is important. Some advisors to students looking at university are now routinely saying “graduate with your degree — and with a skill”. All of this recognizes that when times are uncertain, it’s good to have choices.

In a country built by neighbours pulling together to help each other, turning back to those roots can make our communities thrive even if the headlines are grim.

Troy Media Columnist Bruce Stewart is a nationally syndicated columnist and management consultant living in Toronto. www.troymedia.com