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December 06, 2011

Solar Project Helps Veterans Gain Green Job Skills

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This article originally appeared on Scrapbook.

Three Bay Area veterans committed to building sustainable communities and helping other vets make the transition to civilian jobs raised more than $7,000 to help sponsor a two-day, hands-on training for local veterans to install a solar electric system on the home of a low-income family in San Francisco's Bayview district.

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Among them was Sierra Club staffer and US Naval Academy graduate Alicia Washkevich (above at left). Working with former Marine Ian Thomson (second from right) and fellow Navy vet Brian Wiechowski, the three raised money through individual contributions and donations from the Sierra Club and Sungevity, a residential solar company.

The two-day training, timed to coincide with Veteran's Day, was organized by GRID Alternatives, a solar installation training company operating throughout California, and Swords to Plowshares, a community-based non-profit that helps make the transition to civilian life easier by providing counseling, job training, housing, legal assistance and other services to veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area. Anthony Sordini, director of Veterans Green Career Pathways for Swords to Plowshares, is second from left, above.

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"The partnership between Swords to Plowshares and GRID Alternatives addresses the veteran unemployment crisis while promoting renewable technologies that will help us reduce our dependency on fossil fuels," says Thomson, a GRID Alternatives board member. Below, the Bayview district resident whose house received the solar retrofit.

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The transition from military culture to the civilian workforce can be challenging. "Veterans can be unsure about how to apply and interview for a job, and employers are often hesitant to hire vets who lack experience in civilian jobs," says Sordini. "We're trying to bridge the gap for veterans pursuing employment in the green economy."

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Washkevich, an oceanographer and a decorated Director of Training & Education while in the Navy, joined the Sierra Club staff in 2009 to oversee the Club's National Youth & Veteran's Programs. "I had a bit of a tough transition from military to civilian life myself," she says. "After seeing first-hand the link between energy and national security, and spending time outdoors in nature after deployments to decompress, I just knew I wanted to work in the new green economy after my military service."

Alicia-Washkevich

Now the Sierra Club's Conservation Finance & Operations Manager, Washkevich learned from her military training what it meant to "defend and protect," giving her skills that she now applies in the environmental arena. "I think I'm like a lot of veterans in being 'mission focused,'" she says. "I'm not driven by money; I'm driven by a mission.

"Lots of veterans are looking for more than just a job once they get out of the military. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and the green economy presents the same sort of opportunity for veterans to work in a field with a mission, to help families save money, help stop pollution and hazards from coal and oil, protect our environment, and reduce security issues associated with energy."

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The Veteran's Day installation of the solar electric system on the San Francisco home was overseen by professional staff from GRID Alternatives, and the seven veterans who participated were all enrolled in Swords to Plowshares' green jobs training program.

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The vets installed 6 photovoltaic solar modules that will generate 1.2 kilowatts of clean, renewable power and reduce the family's monthly electricity bill by 75 percent. Over its lifetime, the system is expected to generate over 67,000 kilowatts of energy, saving the family more than $11,000 and eliminating 38 tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

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Washkevich and fellow fundraiser Wiechowski met at their first civilian job, where they started talking about what they could do to help other vets who were transitioning to civilian life. "We wanted to bring together Bay Area veterans, help build a support network, and give back to our fellow brothers and sisters who served," Washkevich says.

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The two met with Ian Thomson and formulated a plan to raise money for the Veteran's Day solar panel installation, bringing Swords to Plowshares onboard to help identify vets in need of skilled job training. "It was really just us wanting to give back to vets in need on Veteran's Day," Washkevich says. "We were blown away by all the support we got, and we hope to do something even bigger next year!"

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-- Tom Valtin

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