Oregon Tech students help light up the night
Oregon Institute of Technology engineering professor Slobodan Petrovic will never forget when he traveled to Africa on a volunteer trip 10 years ago — an experience that would cement his devotion to providing electricity for those in need.
In 2009 he was on a yearlong volunteer trip installing solar systems to provide electricity in hospitals, schools and orphanages. One village's school was quite large and housed students. About one month after he passed through the village and did a survey of the school, a girl was using a candle to read at night. She fell asleep and the candle caught a blanket on fire and killed 14 girls.
"Completely needlessly because they didn't have a lightbulb for the electricity," said Petrovic, who shortly afterward started his own nonprofit organization called Solar Hope, which is dedicated to providing renewable energy solutions to underdeveloped regions.
That's when he decided to motivate Oregon Tech students to help him in his work by taking them on annual trips to Africa.
And now, his renewable energy students are preparing to travel to Africa on a humanitarian and educational mission in January to install solar systems in Gambia for one of the largest hospitals. Though the hospital is their main mission, they will install 15 to 20 other solar systems in schools, smaller medical clinics and orphanages.
"Most of us, we wanted to go into the renewable energy engineering major because we want to help people, and then, not only is this an opportunity to start to get to help people who really need it the most, but it's an opportunity for us to use everything we learned in our education, so far, and apply it to the real world," said Jason Black, an Oregon Tech student.
Since 2009 — with the exception of one or two years — Petrovic has brought student groups with him to Africa for weeks at a time and has conducted more than 120 installations throughout the country.
Oregon Tech alum Matthew McKenney traveled to Tanzania with Petrovic's class in 2014 for seven weeks. He said it was beneficial to learn about solar energy and the installation in the classroom and then actually implement what he learned in the real world.
He said the installation wasn't difficult, but the quick turnaround needed was challenging. The group would show up early in the morning and determine what was needed for the installation and how big of a solar array was necessary to fit the specified location. Transporting between villages also was a challenge. McKenney said some days they would spend six to eight hours in a van on dirt roads hoping the vehicle wouldn't break down.
McKenney's most memorable moment was when his crew forgot tools after their installation and had to return to the school where they had just installed solar panels. When he returned to the school, the lights were on in one of the classrooms and a group of eight kids were studying.
"That was pretty exciting to see," he said.
Petrovic's class stays in different accommodations depending on the location. Sometimes they sleep in mud huts, guest homes, hostels or even on the floor in classrooms or medical clinics.
"For us living here, it's difficult to imagine what (life is like) in these villages. I like to call that crossing the timeline," Petrovic said. "Every day during these trips when we go to one of the villages, we cross this timeline and go a few centuries before. The only one thing that tells you we are in the 21st century is that most of them will have cellphones. It's an incredible paradox. They have cellphones, but they cannot charge them because they don't have electricity."
In some villages, the community sends a runner every few days to take the cellphones to the closest town, charge them and run back the next day.
"It's a completely different world," Petrovic said.
Oregon Tech student Daren Fernandez recently traveled to Haiti with another Portland nonprofit to install solar panels in schools. He's looking forward to visiting Gambia to see the positive impact electricity will have on a community in a different part of the world.
"In Haiti, we were able to see the kids' faces at night when we turned the lights on and the realization of 'Oh, whoa, we have electricity now," he said.
Ultimately, Petrovic wants to expand the program. He's received invitations from about 40 different countries that need help. But there's one problem: funding.
To have his class spend at least a month abroad in a developing country, working on about 12 to 15 installations — each project takes between one and seven days — Petrovic estimates the cost to be at least $60,000. Oregon Tech pitches in, various community organizations help, and the class holds fundraisers, but the supplies and cost of travel is completely reliant on donations.
"I constantly have to answer invitations from Kenya, from Ghana, from Nigeria, from Asian countries to go there, If we could do everything, we would, but again it's all about the sources of funding because we donate everything. The receiving party, school or hospital, they don't pay anything and, of course, for that, we need funding," Petrovic said.
"The whole idea is to expand the program and impact as many people in developing countries as possible — mainly children — so we have great ambitions and great goals. Again, we cannot accomplish that alone. We need partners; we need donors."
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