Bethlehem Farm Receives Franciscan Sisters’ Grant to Increase Solar Power in Appalachia

TALCOTT—The Wheaton (IL) Franciscan Sisters Ministry Fund awarded grant funding to Bethlehem Farm, an intentional Catholic community in Talcott that provides home repair in Appalachia. The grant, the largest in the 13-year history of Bethlehem Farm, will have an immediate and lasting impact on the farm’s ability to pursue its mission of serving the local community and teaching sustainable practices. The Wheaton Franciscans and Bethlehem Farm share inspiration derived from Pope Francis’ second encyclical Laudato Si, subtitled “On Care for our Common Home.” The Wheaton Franciscans—the United States province of the international Franciscan Sisters, Daughters of the Sacred Hears of Jesus and Mary— created a private ministry fund with the mission of supporting projects in four areas, including care for creation. Bethlehem Farm will use the multi-year grant funding to help West Virginians improve their homes with solar panels, weatherization, and sustainable building materials. The grant also supports Bethlehem Farm’s goal of becoming a “net zero” user of the power grid. The majority of funds will be dedicated to an initiative of Bethlehem Farm called the “Green Neighbors Project.” This portion of the funding will be disbursed annually for the next three years for several initiatives. The largest portion of the Green Neighbors Project is for the purchase and installation of solar panels for homeowners or nonprofits. This initiative will start a fund that families pay back into thereby enabling the program to continue in the future. Another significant portion of the funding will cover home weatherization audits, labor, and materials. Investments in solar panels and weatherization allow homeowners to reduce monthly utility expenses, program officials said. The Green Neighbors Project grant funds provide also a critical annual boost to the Farm’s young Sustainable Upgrade Fund. Bethlehem Farm has provided home repair for local homeowners since 2005. Families pay for construction supplies while the farm provides volunteer labor consisting primarily of high school and college students led by skilled farm staff, referred to as “Caretakers.” Recognizing the environmental value and acknowledging the premium cost of sustainable building materials, the farm created the Sustainable Upgrade Fund in 2017 which offers a cost share for sustainable materials used on home repair sites. Low-income homeowners and creation benefit from sustainable though often relatively expensive materials that are non-toxic, super insulating, durable and/or sustainably-harvested, program officials said. The Franciscan Sisters’ grant will also allow Bethlehem Farm itself to reduce its reliance on the power grid. Located in Summers County, Bethlehem Farm has two large buildings that house the Caretakers and the nearly 400 annual visiting volunteers. Nearly half of the overall grant will be disbursed over the next two years for the Net Zero Sustainable Facilities Plan. While the farm’s mission is to teach sustainable practice, the farm also strives daily to operate in a sustainable manner. The Net Zero Plan will allow the farm to reach 100 percent solar power. Within two years, a complete set of solar electric panels will be installed as well as a battery back-up system for the solar panels. Even grid-tied solar panels do not function in a power outage. The farm knows this fact all too well after living 11 consecutive days without power in 2012. The Caretakers are grateful for this new option that insures continuous power during outages and be more sustainable than the current propane generator backup. The Net Zero Plan will also fund a complete transition of hot water heating to renewables by installing solar hot water collectors for all the farm’s domestic water. Additionally, the Net Zero project includes funding for installation of a second rainwater containment (20,000 gallon capacity). It will collect water from three structures (nearly 6,000 square feet of roof) to use for laundry, toilets, food production and livestock. In the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and foundress Clara Pfaender, the Wheaton Franciscans’ mission is to live the Gospel life discovered in prayer and community. Through loving presence and service, the sisters foster personal and community growth as they respond to the needs of the church and the times. For more information, visit Wheaton Franciscans www.wheatonfrancis can.org. Bethlehem Farm is a Catholic community in Appalachia that transforms lives through service with the local community and the teaching of sustainable practices. The farm hosts volunteers throughout the year to perform home repair services while living the Gospel cornerstones of service, prayer, simplicity and community. For more information, call (304) 445-7143, friend Bethlehem Farm on Facebook or visit www.bethlehem farm.net.

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