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West Virginia-produced hand-held solar kits with the ability to charge cell phones are bringing light and hope to families in war-torn Ukraine.
New Vision Renewable Energy in Barbour County started out as a Christian Community Development organization, providing job training for young adults and at-risk youth.
“We believe that a single action can make a difference in the community, and that collective action can greatly impact the world, ” said President and CEO of New Vision Renewable Energy, Ruston Seaman. When you do community development work, it’s like good gardening. You spend a lot of time making the soil of a community better.”
Located within the rugged Chestnut Ridge community of Philippi, their headquarters is known as the “Epicenter.” Created with sustainability in mind, over the years, New Vision evolved into an international organization helping people living without electricity.
History Of New Vision Renewable Energy
Co-founded by John Prusa, who was born in former Czechoslovakia, the nonprofit promotes solar and renewable energy. Since 2011, it has sent its Ray of Life portable solar units into the developing world.
Prusa’s friendship with president and CEO of New Vision, Ruston Seaman, extends way back. The two met in Philippi, where Seaman serves a dual role as pastor of the People’s Chapel Church.
Shortly before Prusa’s death earlier this year, he turned his attention to Ukraine, where rockets and missile strikes rain down daily, destroying the electric grid. The barrage has left millions of displaced families to survive in basements without power, light or heat.
Ukraine was an immediate connection for Prusa, whose family had suffered under the onslaught of Russian aggression during the Prague spring of 1968.
“He became a refugee and came to America and lived in Philippi. His whole journey was connected to the Russians and the overthrowing of his own country,” Seaman said. “His dad was a Baptist pastor when the Russians overthrew Czechoslovakia.”
An electrical engineer by profession, early on, Prusa mastered the art of making do with little.
“John’s dad got thrown in prison, and as a boy he became desperately poor, but also he would take broken things and fix them,” Seaman said.
Prusa was the owner of several European patents. An inventor, for years he fueled his vehicles with cooking oil, refusing to pay for gas.
It was this energy independence that guided Prusa’s design of the Ray of Life solar unit — a four pound, self-contained kit equipped with a phone charger.
The John and Kathy Prusa Science and Technology Center was funded by the Peoples Chapel Church and is where the first solar unit was built.
Lauren Edge and Shelby Luff holding a solar panel that will be installed into the Ray of Life units.
Credit: Caroline MacGregor/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
”So this is our multipurpose center where we have a lot of our operations,” Seaman said. “We’re going down around the corner to where we’re making lights. We make about 40 percent of all of our electricity at our community center.”
Inside, light components and Ukrainian flag stickers line a long wooden workbench waiting to be assembled.
“So we’re entering in, this is a brand new workshop that we have actually built for this particular needed product, and it’s dedicated to John and Kathy Prusa,” Seaman said. “They’re the renewable scientists that have helped us.”
About midway through the workshop, Seaman points to a picture on the wall, nostalgia written on his face as he speaks of his former friend and mentor.
“So this is John Prusa, he’s the person who kind of gave us our initial training, and so these four lights that we’re going to make today will go on the next trip to Ukraine,” Seaman said. “Each one of our staff members will be able to assign something that they learned how to make.”
Ray Of Life Solar Units
The Ray of Life unit has four basic components: a solar panel, lithium ion batteries, three LED light strips and the housing. The international company 3M, known for tape among other things, helped advise on the reflective paper the LED strands affix to as part of the panel’s design.
“I think Ukraine is similar to West Virginia,” Seaman said. “We’re not the best solar state in the world but we designed our light to where it would have a minimum of five hours of light every night. If it’s a cloudy week you become a little more conservative about how much light you use every day.”
“We made some changes but the original design was done by John and we wanted to carry on his work,” said Chuck Coleman, an electronics specialist who oversees the assembly of the solar units.
Through extensive research and testing, Coleman, who teaches adult and afterschool classes, was able to extend the life of the rechargeable batteries.
“We’re using a lithium ion battery,” Coleman said. “It’s an extremely good battery in the aspect it holds energy for a long period of time and that energy could last up to 10 hours.”
During their assembly, the batteries are incorporated into the solar unit as part of a job training program that provides income to local residents like 55-year-old Rita Dalton.
Dalton has a special knack for soldering the lights which requires good dexterity.
“The soldering part on the lights you have to cut ‘em so long and put like the ends and you have a soldering kit and you have to solder each little piece to make the lights work,” she said.
As she works, Dalton’s thoughts are with the people of Ukraine. She knows firsthand what it’s like to live without power.
“Before I learned how to do this here, I lived probably three years with my children without electricity. I would have loved to have one of them back them,” Dalton said. “When I’m making them, I think about that and the people in the war hiding and what it means to be able to see.”
The solar units are constructed with the harsh living conditions of Ukraine in mind. Seaman said each unit is thoroughly inspected to ensure that it holds up.
“We know when it goes to the war front, if it falls apart nobody is going to benefit,” Seaman said. “So we work extra hard to make sure we have a quality product to send.”
Before COVID-19, the Ray of Life units were sent to countries without electricity, usually with church mission teams traveling to developing parts of the world.
“As you know, COVID happened, it changed the world of supply chains and everything,” Seaman said. “Our organization, pre-COVID, has produced about 4,000 of these lights, and they’re in 39 countries.”
During the pandemic, production stalled and remained dormant until a call from Seaman’s longtime friend Dave Nonnemacher, who heads up New Horizons Foundation-USA, serving primarily Romania and Moldova.
He’d visited Ukraine shortly after the war broke out.
“They had no power, period,” Nonnemacher said. “You know, one of the things we’ve landed on is light brings hope, and hope keeps people alive. To be able to read to your kids, to cook a meal with some light, it’s a really powerful metaphor.”
In eastern Europe, Nonnemacher worked with Joel Burkum, the director of For God’s Children International (FGIC). The two joined forces to deliver supplies to refugees crossing Ukraine’s southwestern border into neighboring Moldova.
Back in America, Nonnemacher lay awake at night wondering what he could do to help the people of Ukraine.
Dave Nonnemacher is the director of New Horizons Foundation-USA, MN. Here he is seen delivering supplies to Ukraine.
Credit: Vadim S.
“I was doing my morning swim, and the thought popped into my mind, ‘I wonder if Ruston is still making lights?’” Nonnemacher said. “So I called him and pretty quickly we had plane tickets to go back. Ruston got 10 complete lights for me and I took them over there in March, we were able to get back into Ukraine. The people in Odesa got them to people who don’t have access to electricity.”
Nonnemacher was introduced to Vlad — an FGCI staff member who travels 750 miles each week transporting Ukrainians across the Moldovan border into places like Chisinau. And Vadim — a pastor who was in Kyiv when the war started.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting is withholding both men’s last names for their safety.
Journey Into Ukraine With The Mariupol Chaplains Battalion
Vadim helped Nonnemacher by arranging several forays into areas of Ukraine. The two traveled alongside the Mariupol Chaplains Battalion, volunteers who risk their lives daily to support the military, evacuate citizens and bring supplies and comfort to those in need.
One of those includes a woman with a shock of red hair who lives 5 kilometers from the front. A huge smile lighting up her face, she excitedly expresses her gratitude for the gift of a Ray of Life solar unit.
(Translated) “Thank you very much for these lamps,” she said. “We will now be able to charge our cell phones and from now on we will have light. They are very useful lamps. Thank you very much.”
Vadim and Nonnemacher plan their trips based on the number of solar units, provisions, cash and vehicles.
“Like what vehicle we’ll need, so we’re going to have a van,” Nonnemacher said. “The other question, how much do I have so he knows what he can buy and how far we can go and the areas in Ukraine he knows people need supplies.”
Ray Of Life Sponsors
The sponsors of the Ray of Life units complete the final assembly. Each solar unit costs $125 to build. For another $25, a separate VF-100 lightweight portable water filter is included with each kit.
Sponsors of the units vary and include churches, service clubs like Rotary International, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
“It’s always been a partnership, our light is designed so that people actually peel and stick and put it together as part of the process,” Seaman said. “They sponsor the cost of the light, and then we help them assemble the light to have some skin in the game. The hardest part is getting them from some location across the border to another country.”
Victoria Karssen with the American Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa, and Pastor Ryan Donahoe with First Presbyterian Church in Petoskey, Michigan are among those helping to assemble the lights.
Pastor Donahue said his church rallied to build as many lights as possible. They started out with 19 and raised extra money to include water filters.
“Dave ended up sending me all the light kits there were at that point for our youth to put together, and I said, ‘Hey we still have all this money, how many water filters can you buy with this?’” Donahoe said. “So every light kit that will be going over to Ukraine will also have a water filter with it. So, they’ll get both light, power to charge their cell phones, but also a water filter they can use.”
The final touch to each unit includes a blue and yellow adhesive Ukrainian flag that is sealed across the top of the kit and signed by the person who puts it together.
“People are longing for ways to come together and for ways to see the connections. When I say this light kit is going to go to an individual or family in Ukraine, we had the kids sign their names on it,” Donahoe said. “They know this came from a person, it didn’t just get shipped from a business. You put this together with your hands. For people in Ukraine, it’s a way of saying, ‘we know you exist and we’re connected with you.’”
Karssen said her Iowa church embraced the idea of helping people in Ukraine.
“One of the families, they have a Ukrainian student in their class and this little gal who’s in grade school was so excited to be building for Ukraine, that she had a connection and then she got to do something,” Karsen said. “It was kind of tricky figuring out what we were doing as a group, but then it kind of all came together.”
Prusa’s Legacy Lives On
Both Seaman and Nonnemacher said it is affirming to know that what is being done in America is helping to support the people of Ukraine.
“Bless these efforts God, may your love and light shine through,” Nonnemacher said in prayer. “John Prusa and his legacy, it continues to have an impact, and will for a long time.”
To sponsor a Ray of Life solar unit for Ukraine, call Ruston Seaman at New Vision Renewable Energy at: 304-669-2191. Or, visit their website at www.nvre.org.