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Sunshine in Tibet

Woodstockers trek to Raktrul to install solar equipment

by Violet Snow
May 19, 2011 01:01 PM | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Jason Spiotta and Todd Koelmel at the town highway garage, where they are installing solar panels. Photo by Dion Ogust.
In August, a truck laden with solar panels, solar desk lamps, and tools will travel 900 miles from the Chinese city of Xining, climbing the mountains to Raktrul, a village in a remote area of Tibet. Also in the truck will be Jason Spiotta and Todd Koelmel, proprietors of Solar Generation, a solar installation business in Woodstock.

When the two men started their company in 2005, says Spiotta, “A big part of our dreams and aspirations was not only to work every day and support our families with a business we believed in, but also to help our community and help a part of the world that doesn’t have what we have.”

Through a grant from NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority), which pays for solar equipment for nonprofit organizations, Koelmel and Spiotta have donated their time to install solar panels at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, the KTD (Karma Triyana Dharmachakra) monastery in Woodstock, and KPL (Kunzang Palchen Ling), a Tibetan monastery currently under construction in Red Hook.

At KPL, where Koelmel has practiced meditation, they met the Venerable Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, who is spiritual head of the center and was instrumental in the building of KTD over the last 30 years. The Rinpoche is affiliated with a monastery in Raktrul, where there are also a nunnery and a retreat program.

“Raktrul is in a remote area of eastern Tibet that was one of the first places to be run over by the Chinese in the late 50s,” explains Koelmel. “There is extreme poverty, and many people have never been to a doctor. Two years ago, people went to there to start establishing a medical clinic. They had a temporary clinic for two weeks, taught people hygiene, provided acupuncture, and talked about diet. The people there eat a lot of white rice, and they have no vegetables. At such a high altitude, it’s hard to grow food.”

Negotiations are underway with the Chinese government to allow the medical professionals to take over a state-owned building in the village to house a permanent clinic. But with last summer’s earthquake 200 kilometers away resources have been diverted, and negotiations are hanging.

Koelmel, who is 38 years old, and Spiotta, 41, will be traveling with a doctor, two acupuncturists, and young Lama Tratop, a native of the village who has been living and working at KPL. Some of the team will bring along recycled reading glasses collected by the local Lions Club.

The two men are paying their own travel expenses but are collecting donations for equipment, which will include portable solar desk lamps, costing $25 each, to hand out to schoolchildren so they won’t have to study by candlelight. No power lines reach into the region’s rugged landscape. “It would be too expensive to build,” notes Koelmel, “and the people couldn’t afford to pay for power.”

They are also soliciting donations for two small battery-based solar electrical systems of 500 watts for the school and 1000 watts for the clinic, which will be located at the nunnery until a permanent site is established.

“A lot will be figured out when we get there,” says Koelmel. They will fly into Beijing and travel to Xining, where the equipment will be purchased. Lama Tratop will help them hire a four-wheel-drive vehicle and driver for the trek to Raktrul.

“On the last trip, they had some problems with the altitude,” says Spiotta. “We will have to ascend slowly and be aware of signs of altitude sickness, stop to adjust if we’re not feeling well. I’ve been running to get in shape. Acupuncture is supposed to help too.”

Spiotta and Koelmel have sent out a letter to customers, friends, and relatives requesting donations for equipment, which will cost a total of about $20,000. In their letter, they observe that in Raktrul, “An estimated one in 33 births results in the death of the mother, and approximately one in eight newborns does not survive. Life expectancy averages 60 years, and income ranges from $200 to $600 annually.”

The letter emphasizes, “100 percent of the money raised by us will be used to purchase solar equipment for this trip. No money will be used for overhead or administration fees. All of the participants are volunteers and are receiving no compensation for this trip.”

Neither Koelmel nor Spiotta has ever been anywhere close to Tibet. “I’m excited,” says Spiotta, “even though some things are still uncertain about the trip. Being comfortable with that has to do with having kids.” He and his wife have three young sons.

Koelmel adds, “I’m happy to see that one of the goals for our business is coming to fruition in such a short time, that we’re helping people who are really in need.”++

Donations may be made in the form of checks payable to Raktrul Foundation and sent to SOLARgeneration, 43 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock NY 12498. For more information on the project, see www.raktrul.org.
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