Quintaisja Harrison didn’t know a lot about New Haven’s natural environment — or about nonviolent communication and public speaking — until she was in the third grade, and a budding organization called Solar Youth offered to take her on a field trip to West Rock with a few fourth graders from her school. There, members promised, she could experience some of the the city’s native topography and learn about Connecticut’s food chain.
The trip lasted a few hours. By its end, Harrison was hooked, and became a participant in Solar Youth’s education-based programs.
Fourteen years later, she’s still there, working as a volunteer educator to teach kids like her younger brother the same lessons that so enriched her childhood — and helped her become “a better version of Tae, the version that you see standing here today.”
She told that story to a crowd of over 100 Thursday night at Solar Youth’s Solar Jam 2016! gala, the nonprofit’s annual auction and fundraiser.
Held in Kroon Hall at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science — itself a temple to the environment with a geothermal ventilation system, rainwater collection, and wood sourced from Connecticut forests — the event grossed around $52,000. The money will go to Solar Youth’s summer camps and year-round educational programming.
Now in its 16th year, the organization seeks to create youth development opportunities in New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods by connecting young people to the environment around them.
“They’re always there for us,” Harrison said. “2011 was my hardest year by far. I was going through some tough stuff. I lost my older brother that year. My Green Jobs workers that I was working with that year, they were very comforting to everything that I’d been through ... They always kept me motivated, and being with Solar Youth was what pushed me to keep going.
“I always knew that I had kids looking up to me in the neighborhood, and I couldn’t turn my back on the organization that had done so much for me. They always made sure that they were there for me ... I recommend them to all of my friends, I recommend them to all of my little cousins ... They’re a very good group to have, and an extra set of family outside of the ones that you were born into.”
Solar Youth serves an average of 500 kids a year from 4 to 19-plus years of age. Thousands of young people like Harrison have passed through its doors — and paddled its canoes, and participated in its trash pickups, and hiked its favorite hiking trails, and smelled its dirt-tinged edges — since its conception in 2000.
That youth-centric mission, founder and Executive Director Joanne Sciulli said at the gala, is becoming increasingly harder to achieve as Solar Youth’s funding is squeezed year by year, and institutional backing dries up. That’s why events like Solar Jam 2016! are so important to the future of the organization.
“Our theme this year is ‘come grow with us,’” she said. “Now the irony is that in a time when we’ve been looking to grow, we’ve also faced challenges. I’ve been using the analogy of a tree for the last year…. Trees are stronger when they’ve experienced stress. You can have a tree growing in a controlled environment with stakes helping keep it up — that tree will grow really tall, but it will be weak. The trees that are in the environment that has natural stresses ultimately are stronger and more vital. Solar Youth has always had stress, but this year we’ve had hurricane gusts of stress, many different types. But we’re facing it now, and my belief is that ultimately we will be stronger because of it.”
That theme of growth, even in the face of slowly shrinking wallets, carried into the evening’s silent and live auctions. Attendees bid on private beer/wine and cheese pairings with Caseus’ Jason Sobocinski and weekend trips to New Orleans, cheered on by auctioneer and Friend of Solar Youth (FOSY) Padraig Barry as they raised their yellow auction paddles and brought in around $18,000 for the organization
Partnership Officers Lindsay Blauvelt and Jaleesa Freeman asked attendees to consider hosting cultivation gatherings at their homes, where representatives from Solar Youth could come out and talk about the work that they do.
Freeman also suggested that attendees take out their phones, go to Facebook, and like or share a new video on Solar Youth by local filmmaker Travis Carbonella. In the opening shots, Freeman is sitting straight-backed against a blue wall, smiling slightly, telling the story of how she got involved with Solar Youth at the age of ten.
“One of my friends was involved,” she says in the video. “She goes to this program that’s really cool, we learn about the environment” — she pauses for a moment — “the rest was history.”