Cruisers In Guatemala Give Light To Communities Without It
Julia Bartlett could only imagine the potential when about four years ago, a friend took an old solar panel and an old battery from a sail boat moored in the resort community of Rio Dulce in Guatemala and installed them in a village with no access to electricity. Her imagination didn’t disappoint.
She put out a call over the VHF (very high frequency) radio used by cruisers, members of the sailing community, to communicate at sea. On the first call, she received a donated solar panel and a donated battery and new she was onto something. With help from her friend, she installed the system in the village of Serranch and Pass It On Guatemala was born.
Julia Bartlett. Credit: Devin Thorpe.
She leverages who local network to identify villages with a need and a willingness to support the program. A friend who manages local firefighters and ambulance service introduce Julia to her husband Daniel Pinto who is a community health worker who travels among villages, many without power. He helped identify Serranch as a good fit.
The system there is still in use four years later. In fact, all the systems installed are still in use. The organization tried installing water filters in some of the villages but found they fell into disuse. Acknowledging the vital importance of clean water, Julia says one key to the success of water systems is helping people see and understand the invisible microbial infections that Pass It On Guatemala isn’t set up to support. This contrast highlights the acute need for electricity where it is lacking.
With help from an MIT scientist, she designed a simple and safe solution to provide battery storage of electric power enough for hours of light from five LED bulbs. Diagrams with few words make installation possible even for someone who can’t read with little training. In fact, the fellow who received the friend’s first installation, Oswaldo, is now the paid installer when a system is ready to be placed in a new village.
When working with a new village, Julia says the organization looks to place the solar system in a public building like a clinic or school. If neither exists and there is one church, the system may go there. If there are two churches, they will give each home a simple solar lamp instead.
They have now installed systems in about 40 villages up to three hours from Rio Dulce, though Julia says you don’t have to go far to find a village without power. The organization promises that the systems, typically built around 100-watt panels, will work for two years. Then the organization returns to replace the battery. The battery is tested and if good enough may reuse it in another system.
Cruisers are tantalized by new electric-powered navigation systems, freezers and refrigerators that draw more power—made possible by more efficient solar panels, small wind turbines and even generators that can to towed in the water behind a boat when sailing. As a result, older, less efficient panels are available to be donated after an upgrade.
When Julia and her team return to a village, they provide a range of supplementary services as well. They sell solar lamps to people in the village for half the price the organization pays—after selling a similar quantity at a markup to cruisers at swap meets to balance the cost.She hopes this helps the village to develop a sense of independence rather than dependence.
She already sees how much the communities value the systems. Once, a boy in a village broke one of the LED bulbs. She offered to replace it but the village refused saying that the boy who broke it would have the responsibility to earn the money to buy a replacement.
The team also provides first-aid kits and basic training to members of the village. A recent addition to the work is screening for donated reading glasses. The organization uses the same eye test for men and women—asking them to thread a needle with different pairs of glasses to find the best match. She notes that men need the skill for threading fish hooks. Both are excited to regain the skill that middle age steals.
Just over a year ago, the webmaster suggested to Julia it was time to set up a proper 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the United States to allow for tax deductible donations. With that done, those wishing to support the organization can visit PassItOnGuatemala.org to donate.
Julia, originally from the UK, still lives on her boat in Rio Dulce but says she doesn’t get to sail much—she spends all her time working for Pass It On Guatemala turning the lights on for people who live half their lives in the dark.
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