It was the last place Lois Prater's children expected her to go – overseas to become a missionary.
At age 80, Ms. Prater, who had been a stay-at-home housewife all her married life, sold her Seattle-area home, her car, and other belongings to build an orphanage in the Philippines. She became the unlikely helping hand for hundreds of orphaned children over the years, many of whom were abused or abandoned.
“She sold everything,” says Bonnie Swinney, one of Prater's three daughters. “The only things she kept were the things she could use in the orphanage.”
In 1991, Prater, with her own money, bought 12 acres of land covered with mango and coconut trees near Orion, a small town in the Philippines. Three years later, the doors would open to King's Garden Children's Home, a 2,000-square-foot, white stucco building, giving orphaned children from infants to teens new hope.
“I can't imagine at my age going over there now,” says Ms. Swinney, who is 73. “What she did was amazing.”
For 13 years, Prater lived in the Philippines, enduring both physical and financial hardships. She had to overcome a number of challenging physical ailments along the way. And there was the difficult task of living in a foreign country, far from her family. Yet she refused to come home.
Finally, with a new manager in place, Prater retired and returned home to live with her daughter near Seattle just before her 90th birthday. She died in January at age 100.
“I didn't know anything about business, about building an orphanage,” Prater said several years ago when talking about her decision to open King's Garden. “All along, I've just trusted in God, and He's answered my prayers. I did what I could do, and God did the rest.”
Just a few years after King's Garden Children's Home opened, Prater invested in expansion. King's Garden tripled in size and started a school. Over the years, an average of about 60 children at a time have lived at the orphanage.
Prater's unlikely journey began six months after her husband, Galon Prater, died in 1988. While Lois Prater was watching a Christian TV program, Lora Lam, a missionary on the program, asked for people to join her on a three-week outreach trip to China. Prater, who had attended Bible school as a teenager and had earned her ministerial license, felt her childhood desire to become a missionary rising again.
“I said, 'Lord, I'm too old to go now,' ” Prater said.
But she went, making three trips, one to China and two to the Philippines, taking part in open-tent meetings. Inspired by her trip with Ms. Lam to China, Prater returned for a second trip several weeks later with 11 other women for a month-long stay in the Philippines. She later made a third visit to the Philippines alone and was speaking at a church when a poorly dressed man came up to her after the service and offered to sell his baby to her for 1,000 pesos, or about $40 at that time.
“That impacted my soul so deeply I knew I had to do something,” Prater said.
So, in 1990 she returned to the United States and sold her home for $65,000. She sold everything she had, determined to build an orphanage.
“It was a strange feeling to see her selling everything: her couches, her chairs, her China hutch, her washer and dryer, everything,” says Swinney, who made several visits to her mom's orphanage over the years. “But I had heard her stories about her wanting to build an orphanage all my life. This is something she had always wanted to do.”
Prater admitted selling her home wasn't easy.
"I struggled, but I knew that what I was trying to do was something much more important than hanging onto my faded couch," Prater said.
At 89, Prater had a physical setback and was forced to step down as the orphanage's director. She returned home, this time for good. But she made several short visits to her orphanage over the next few years.
The orphanage and school continues to do well today. Monica Jarvis assumed directorship of King's Garden Children's Home in 2005 and remains in that position with the support of the Assemblies of God World Missions.
“To think that my mom opened the orphanage at 80 and worked there until she was 89 absolutely blows me away,” says Swinney, who has adopted several children from King's Garden Children's Home. “My mom has the biggest heart.”
Each of the children brought to King's Garden Children's Home has a heartbreaking story. One of the first children, who had no name, was brought to Prater when he was just nine days old. Prater named him Albert. His alcoholic father was in jail and his mother moved into the jail with him because she had no other place to stay.
One-by-one, Prater took in each of that mother's four children, keeping them out of jail.
Another child, who Prater named Tommy, was brought to King's Garden Children's Home by the police when he was just one year old. Tommy's ear had been cut off by his father. Heidi, another child brought to Prater by the police, came to King's Garden with stomach worms and head lice. Many of the children who come to King's Garden are in need of medical treatment.
The mother and father of a girl named Jennifer died, and she moved into King's Garden when she was 10. Her step brother brought her to the orphanage because she had no other place to live.
“I feel I'm not talented enough to do any of this,” Prater said while she was still overseeing King's Garden. “But God enables me. My responsibility is to do what I can. He does the rest. My only regret is I didn't start when I was younger.”
Prater's story has been an inspiration to others, including her daughter, showing how it's never too late to live a life of serving others.
“My mom was such an amazing person,” Swinney says. “She had tremendous faith in God.”
It takes him a good 20 seconds to get his bearings, but, sitting up in his bed, Matti Tourrani smiles and says hello, muffled by a drowsy cough. His right leg is swollen – so much that it is now twice as thick as his left. "It's not so painful; I'm more concerned about my knee,” says the elderly man.
Mr. Tourrani has traveled with his wife, Maysoun, from their small village near Mosul in northern Iraq for knee-replacement surgery, a procedure that would cost more than $23,000 and for which the family mortgaged their house.
Their part of Iraq is still violent: Last week a bomb killed two people just a mile from their home. “We're used to it by now,” Maysoun says.
But the family is concerned that they might have traveled in vain. Before any knee surgery, the leg must heal more, says Irad Beldjebel, a doctor who works helping Beirut's unknown thousands of refugees.
The Algerian-born Beldjebel spends his days not only treating refugees, but serves as an all-round counselor – a trusty shoulder to lean on for people who are often traumatized by the past, worried about the future, and unsure about the present. People such as the Tourranis, who are staying in a compound with other Iraqis, themselves long-time refugees in Lebanon.
Dr. Beldjebel is not only treating Tourrani, he is helping the family work through a deadline and a dilemma: whether or not to go ahead with the knee operation.
“Our visas will be out of date in 10 days,” Maysoun says. “Someone said we will have to pay $2,000 each to extend our stay,” she adds with a sigh.
Beldjebel tells her that the figure is suspiciously high. He suspects that the official in question is trying to extort vulnerable Iraqis – people who are in a bind and unaware of the Lebanese law.“We will check out the process fully for the visa issue,” says Beldjebel, trying to reassure the elderly couple.
It is all part of a typical day for the doctor, who has been in Lebanon for four years and now is the sole representative here of the St. Elizabeth College of Public Health and Social Work, based in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Lebanon currently hosts between 400,000 and 1 million Syrians, who have fled the brutal war there. Lebanon's own 1975-1990 war was prompted partly by an influx of Palestinian refugees, around 400,000 of whom still stay in sometimes-violent camps around Lebanon.
Beldjebel has been “a tremendous help to those people he assists,” says Michel Kasdano, a retired Lebanese Army general who has worked with the Chaldean Catholic Church in Lebanon to provide assistance to Iraqi refugees.
There are around 8,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon – mostly Christians who fled after the 2003 US invasion and subsequent ethnic and sectarian blood-letting across the country.
Beldjebel's history makes him perhaps uniquely attuned to assisting Christians in this region: He is a convert to Catholicism from Islam and as a consequence has not been able to travel home to Algeria to see his parents since 2009.
Sitting in a small, austere apartment above the Mar Elias church in East Beirut, near where the doctor often does his rounds, Nohoud Najib, an Iraqi Chaldean Catholic, is hoping to be resettled to a Western country. She's in her second stint as a refugee, having fled to Lebanon in 2012.
Prior to Damascus, they fled their home in Baghdad, Iraq, after threats of being kidnapped.“Our neighbor said our son's name was on a list at a mosque nearby, and that it was no longer safe for us,” Ms. Najib says.
That was in 2007. She and her family spent the next two years in Dora, which was a mostly Christian area of Baghdad but has since seen many of the non-Muslim residents leave.
Now the worry is that Syria's war could spread to Lebanon. Last week, Syria carried out airstrikes in northern Lebanon, saying that Sunni Muslim rebels were being sheltered there. The Syrian government is backed by Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia militia that is a powerful player in Lebanon's complex sectarian politics.
“Fighting seems to follow us around,” Najib jokes. “We just want to go somewhere safe, and where my children can resume their education. We feel like we have been in limbo for years.”
Dr. Beldjebel has been a friend to the family since they arrived in Beirut, with handshakes and banter testifying to the warm relationship.
That type of relationship is one Beldjebel tries to cultivate with all the refugees he treats. His job is not just about diagnosing and prescribing, he says."We are also here to listen to them. It's a big part of our time," he says. "They need to voice out their sufferings and the violence that they have been going through.”
One gardener’s weed is another’s essential ingredient.
Karen Monger, a community blogger in Norwich, Conn., wants to change the way New Englanders consider invasive species, whether it's garlic mustard or autumn olives. There’s a more sustainable alternative to culling, pulling, or poisoning them, she says.
“Eating the invaders is a favorite theme for me and my family,” says Ms. Monger, who lives in Norwich, Conn.
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That’s right – Monger wants people to eat the weeds. But, and she can’t stress this enough, she wants people to understand that foraging for edible invasives is not a lark. And so she has launched the blog the3foragers.blogspot.com.
“There is a truly responsible way to do it,” Monger says.
That means, don’t plant invasive species. Don’t sell them; in fact, Connecticut state law prohibits the sale of invasive species. Above all, Monger says, people need to learn how to identify plants. That’s the first, and perhaps most important, rule of foraging, she says.
Her blog chronicles her and her family’s search for wild edible plants across the region. Photographs help readers recognize the plants. She also shares recipes that use native and invasive weeds.
A recent post featured wild autumn olive berries. Monger, a former pastry chef, suggests using the bright red, somewhat sour berry in oatmeal or to make jam and fruit leather.
It also makes a wonderful jelly, she says. “They are freakishly healthy for you, but they are really bad for the environment. They alter the soil competition, so I hope people don't plant them on purpose.”
The plant was introduced as an ornamental in the mid-1830s from China, Korea, and Japan, according to Monger’s blog. The wild autumn olive,
which has silvery leaves, reproduces easily and survives well in poor soil, which Connecticut has in abundance.
The Connecticut Audubon Society estimates the state spends more than $500 million a year, between private and public monies, to eradicate invasive species.
Monger connects with other foragers, including employees in the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Connecticut Department of Transportation; master gardeners; and land conservation managers. She also recently started volunteering with the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group (CIPWG).
Although the CIPWG hasn’t specifically addressed the topic of foraging for edible invasives, people occasionally discuss it informally at meetings, says Donna Ellis, co-chair of the CIPWG at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture.
Monger develops each of her recipes. Whether its sumac tea or grilled garlic mustard, Monger says she wants people to learn how they can take these resources and make something that tastes good.
“People are more likely to try it if it’s not scary looking,” she says.
Monger and her husband started foraging for wild edibles about eight years ago, just after their daughter was born. They had started spending more time outdoors, walking through the woods. Now and again, he’d make an offhand comment about how certain plants resembled those from his native Hungary.
“My husband has a slightly more respectful take on foraging. He has a history of doing it as a child,” she says. She herself comes from the rural town of Colchester, Conn., and remembers picking and eating wild berries.
Monger and her husband decided practical experience would be the best way to learn. The found about Wildman Steve Brill, who leads people on hikes and teaches them which weeds to eat and which to leave alone. They also have hiked with Russ Cohen of Massachusetts, who also leads people on foraging hikes.
Monger stresses that people should never eat anything from the wild without consulting an expert. People can find experts through their local Native Plant Society. In Connecticut, they can consult the Invasive Plants Council.
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Another rule of foraging in the wild is to take small bites. Even when someone knows they have the right, nonpoisonous, wild plant just a small taste is recommended.
“I don’t mind sharing the information,” she says. “I feel the need to really focus on invasives because they’re bad. People want this information badly.”
Tackling the world’s most vexing social problems is a challenge for even the biggest foundations but much more daunting for small ones. Nonetheless, it is possible for small foundations to bring about large-scale change.
At the Tow Foundation, created by my parents, we learned this when we decided to take on one such problem—our state’s failing juvenile-justice system.
The United States leads the world in incarcerating young people. Every year, juvenile courts handle an estimated 1.7 million cases in which a youth is charged with a delinquency offense. That’s about 4,600 delinquency cases a day. Over 70,000 juvenile offenders are not living in their homes on a typical day but are held in group homes, shelters, and other juvenile-detention facilities. An estimated 250,000 youths are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year across the country. Most of the young people prosecuted in adult court are charged with nonviolent offenses.
These statistics are shameful and not in sync with the mission of our foundation: that all people should have the opportunity to enjoy a high quality of life and have a voice in their community, even those who have gotten in trouble with the law.
Before we got started working on this issue 15 years ago, no other foundation in our home state of Connecticut was focused on it. We could not stand by and say this problem was too big for us to tackle. So we set out to figure out how we could make a difference.
With just two staff members, we decided to focus our grants on local organizations that were working to change how the courts treated young people. It was a decision based on our board’s desire, in fact our sense of obligation, to accomplish the most we could with our assets (both human and financial) for the people who needed us the most.
Some 300 grants and $12 million later, we can confidently say we have gotten an excellent return on our investment. Two influential reports released in recent weeks have called Connecticut a national leader in reducing the number of young people who are placed in detention facilities and prisons.
A third report details over a decade of transformation and tells how Connecticut has also channeled much of its resources into programs that work with troubled youths and their families, using treatment services that have proven effective not just to help children stay out of trouble but also to keep the public safer.
This was not always the case.
When the Tow Foundation first started examining the situation, Connecticut’s system was one of the worst in the country, with deplorable conditions of confinement. It was one of only three states that prosecuted and punished all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
The approaches we took can be useful for other foundations taking on all kinds of tough social challenges. Among them:
Scan the landscape and build relationships. Our board hosted a series of roundtable discussions to which we invited groups from the state government, the court system, service providers, advocates, and youths and families affected by the system to speak to us, share their insights, and suggest ways a foundation could make a difference.
This was an important first step both in building our knowledge of the problem and in developing relationships with people who shaped the debate and who cared most about changing the system. It allowed us to be seen not as outsiders who were coming in to fix how state agencies and courts operate but as partners willing to take risks and roll up our sleeves alongside them to do the work.
Support advocacy. Like many other foundations, we had spent most of our grant money financing direct services to individuals. We measured our success based on the number of people who had been helped by the services we paid for.
But we quickly found that helping small groups of individuals was not enough to satisfy our desire to change how the juvenile-justice system worked.
To do that, we realized we needed to support the advocates who were willing and able to lobby, write new legislation, and organize for change.
In 2001 our foundation became the first grant maker to support the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, a coalition of advocates, public defenders, service providers, and parent-led groups that has fought for change and achieved numerous legislative victories that now ensure young people are treated in a more fair and equitable manner.
Our foundation now supports many advocacy networks and coalitions at both the state and national levels, with the hope of amplifying effective change on an even larger scale.
Work collaboratively. We knew we would fail if we treated our mission as a solitary pursuit. We shared our successes and challenges with our colleagues at national foundations and encouraged them to invest in Connecticut. We vetted potential grant recipients and served as the eyes and ears for foundations outside our region.
We also reached out to leaders of state agencies, asking for their commitment to expand programs if we proved they worked. The state is now paying for several that we tested. We also financed research, including studies that found many kids were put in detention for minor offenses or had never committed any crime at all. Those studies have led to significant changes in policies and practices.
Think beyond the grants. The foundation’s board has encouraged staff members to work actively on juvenile-justice issues and not just monitor grants. We have committed countless hours of staff time to bringing groups together to strategize and find common ground, to lead conversations about new and innovative programs and policy, and to offer our grantees training in effective storytelling and leadership development.
We had a lot of work to do, requiring us to commit to a multifaceted, multiyear strategy that is uncommon among our peers.
This approach has required persistence, flexibility, openness to the fact that we might not have all the answers, and willingness to stick with the issue—and our grantees—for the long haul.
We could not adhere to the common practice of limiting an organization to three years of grant support or set hard-and-fast rules about what we do and don’t support.
We needed to acknowledge that the world does not always move in accordance with our grant cycle. So we were nimble and responsive when our colleagues could not be.
What’s more, we understood that no one entity can create large-scale social change alone. It requires a collaborative effort in which government and nonprofits work together toward a common vision for change.
These and other strategies worked for the Tow Foundation. We took on the problem of our state’s failing juvenile-justice system and catalyzed substantial change in how our systems work. We are now expanding on that success by applying what we learned to guide a similar effort in the State of New York. And we hope to help other states and jurisdictions advance changes in juvenile-justice systems across the nation.
Now, I’m not writing this to be self-congratulatory. The credit for the transformative change in Connecticut’s juvenile-justice system goes to our partners in the state legislature, judicial branch, state agencies, youth charities, and advocates. And, of course, to the kids and families who inspired us all.
My hope is that our experience will encourage other foundations, no matter the size, to believe that they, too, can have a big impact on a social issue that may appear too daunting to tackle. The opportunity awaits for us all to be bold and use our unique role as philanthropists to spark, and even drive, large-scale social change.
• Emily Tow Jackson is executive director of the Tow Foundation.
For the smallholder farmers in arid Esigodini, Zimbabwe, the heavy downpours that have hit the area in recent months have been a godsend.
"We have not seen this much rain in years," says farmer Brenda Zulu.
The rains first came in January, destroying homes and claiming lives as people were caught unawares. But farmers struggling to grow crops and raise livestock in the traditionally low-rainfall area surrounding Zimbabwe's second-largest city, Bulawayo, realized that if they could find a way to harness the deluge, they could use it to help their thirsty farms.
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So the villagers grouped together and started digging.
"It was a community suggestion that we dig the earth to trap the water," says Zulu as she scooped water from an artificial pond her community created. The size of a small tennis court, the pond now serves as a reservoir for scores of farms in the area.
She uses the water to water her kitchen garden and fill a trough for her small herd of livestock. "It seems to be helping a lot," she says.
Nobody knows exactly how much water the makeshift ponds hold, but Zulu says her community believes it should have enough to sustain their small farms for the next few months.
With no access to groundwater, and no sign of help from the local authorities to deal with worsening shortages, Zulu and her fellow villagers feel that making their own ponds could be the only answer.
"It was already a depressed gulley, and we extended it as no one seems to offer solutions for our water problems," she says. "We did this ourselves."
For the farmers in Esigodini, who have experienced successive years of drought, building a lake was an act of desperation, driven by the fear of not knowing when, or how much, rain will next fall.
But experts say Zimbabweans can learn to adapt to changing and increasingly severe weather patterns.
Sobona Mtisi, a climate change researcher with the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based research group, says rainfall in Zimbabwe does appear to follow a pattern.
By understanding that pattern, people should be able to prepare for the droughts and floods that have been afflicting the country, Mtisi says.
"Most villagers in the flood-prone areas are aware of the fact that in the past few decades the frequency and intensity of floods has been increasing," Mtisi says. "Similarly, policymakers are aware of the increased frequency of droughts and floods in Zimbabwe."
From 2000 to 2010, Zimbabwe had four floods, the researcher says.
"This means that we have a flood [on average] every 2.5 years," he says. "The evidence that should form the basis for communities and policymakers to understand the shifts in climate is there and irrefutable."
But until someone figures out how to use that evidence to help Zimbabwe's smallholder farmers deal with the cycle of drought and flood, they will look for ways to help themselves — such as digging ponds and lakes.
"We have to find ways to trap the water, not just with our small buckets," says Sithabile Fuzwayo, another Esigodini smallholder. "Water is a serious problem and as long no one comes along to help, we will seek our own solutions."
Rainwater harvesting is nothing new among many communities in Zimbabwe, but it is usually done using small containers that are inadequate to meet longer-term needs of farmers.
The act of investing labor into digging the ground to trap the coming rain is an innovative step — one that more farmers might decide they have to take.
Despite the heavy downpours this season in normally low-rainfall areas around Bulawayo, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa) says not enough of the water has made it into supply dams, due to blockages in drainage systems.
For farmers like Zulu, Fuzwayo, and others, efforts to trap the water themselves seem the only viable solution.
Some environmentalists, however, warn that hand-dug rainwater harvesting ponds could potentially create long-term risks.
"It shows just how poorly the rain problem has been dealt with at local levels, in ways that could in fact bring catastrophic results," warned Gilmore Sithole, an environmentalist and agricultural extension officer with the country’s agriculture ministry. "We just cannot have people digging up the ground without proper monitoring. We have to imagine what kind of gaping holes will be left in the countryside when the dry season sets in."
But like other farmers, Zulu isn't thinking about the long-term risks of her pond. Her main concern is having enough water to keep her garden and livestock alive.
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According to the Zimbabwe Meteorological Services Department, the wet spell in the traditionally dry parts of the country's south is expected to continue into March.
This is the time when farmers should be preparing to harvest, and the continuing rainfall could damage crops. But that is a risk the farmers are willing to take if it means the chance to trap more water — and feel a little less helpless in the face of Zimbabwe's unpredictable weather.
"We no longer have any knowledge of the rain cycle," Zulu says. "But we welcome all the rain we can get."
• Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.
By most measures of environmental policy and progress, Ontario, Canada, ranks well. Over the last half-century, Canada’s most populous province required cities and industries to treat every gallon of wastewater, dramatically reduced the level of sulfur and other pollutants that caused acid rain, and convinced the big and politically powerful pulp and paper industry to install state-of-the-art emissions control equipment.
Next year, though, Ontario is scheduled to complete a 21st century environmental cleanup project that distinguishes it among North American jurisdictions. After a decade of work by the Liberal Party government, Ontario at the end of this year is scheduled to close the last of its big coal-fired generators, and leave a single small coal-fired unit available during periods of peak electrical demand until it closes next year. In shutting down the province’s 19 boilers fueled by coal, Ontario will become the first industrial region on the continent to eliminate coal-fired generation.
The decade-long process to replace a quarter of the province’s electrical generating capacity with new plants fueled by natural gas and renewable energy sources represents one of the most ambitious low-carbon generating strategies in the world. And achieving the coal-less electricity sector has yielded lessons about the constraints of government policy and public acceptance in an industrial democracy seeking to make such a momentous transition.
“What Ontario has done is impressive,” said Tim Weis, the director of renewable energy policy at the Pembina Institute, one of Canada’s most respected environmental research organizations. “But it’s also caused a lot of resistance... The government overcame the struggles to some extent. It does illustrate what is possible, and what to anticipate in terms of getting off of coal.”
Weaning economies off of coal, as Ontario learned, is no small feat. In 2003, Ontario generated 7,500 megawatts of coal-fired electricity, a quarter of its power supply. Ontario’s coal consumption peaked that year at 18.6 million metric tons. Coal-fired power plants were Ontario’s largest source of toxic chemical, heavy metal, sulfur, and nitrogen air pollution. Carbon emissions from coal-fired generation had risen to more than 41 million metric tons annually.
The program to end coal began that same year with an exceptional debate about energy that helped decide the election for provincial premier. Liberal candidate Dalton McGuinty and Conservative incumbent Premier Ernie Eves challenged each other on how quickly to shut coal-fired plants.
Smog, dust, and mercury emissions worried Eves, who said he could do it by 2015. McGuinty shot back that he could push Ontario out of the coal-generated electricity business by 2007, a message of energy conservation and efficiency that helped propel him to victory. McGuinty served for more than nine years as Ontario’s premier before stepping down in February.
Soon after McGuinty’s election in 2003, the provincial government began the process of closing coal plants.
In 2005, the 1,130-megawatt Lakeview coal-fired plant in Toronto, one of the province’s oldest, was shut down. In 2009, four generating units at a plant in Nanticoke and two units at another plant in Lambton were shut. A year later, two more units at Nanticoke were closed. Last year a small plant in Atikokan closed.
This year the last generating units in Nanticoke and Lambton close, and the Atikokan station is being converted to burn wood pellets. Coal consumption, coal-fired generating capacity, and emissions of mercury, other toxic compounds, and carbon dioxide from coal-fired plants will fall to near zero, according to the Ontario Environment Ministry.
“The 2007 deadline was ambitious,” said Garry McKeever, director of energy supply in the Ontario Ministry of Energy. “When the new government got into office it ran up against the mechanics of how to get this done. Communities worried about job losses. Industries worried about having enough power. It takes time to build replacement generation.”
According to the Ministry of the Environment, from 2000 to 2010, air quality improved province-wide in Ontario, and the phasing out of coal plants was a key reason. Ontario also implemented programs to reduce emissions from smelting plants and reduce particulates and toxic air contaminants from the transport sector. Overall, mean particulate concentrations in the province’s air fell from 8.1 micrograms per cubic meter in 2003 to 4.8 micrograms per cubic meter in 2010, a 40 percent decline.
The economic effects of the coal plant closures varied from town to town. For instance a coal-fired plant in Sarnia, an industrial city in southern Ontario along the border with Michigan, was to be replaced by a new natural-gas-fired plant now under construction. And Ontario Power Generation responded to its own staff resistance by promising severance payments, or jobs in the utility’s 65 hydro and three big nuclear plants for workers willing to transfer.
The transition away from coal also was helped by political and economic circumstances. Unlike the US, where miners, producers, truckers, railroads, and utilities form strong regional coal alliances, coal-fired power in Ontario had no other influential political constituencies.
Most of the coal-fired generators were also closed as the US economic meltdown engulfed Ontario’s auto manufacturing sector, North America’s largest producer of vehicles and parts, and one of Ontario’s biggest power consumers. The demand for electricity fell in Ontario, a market that was producing over 35,000 megawatts of generating capacity. Ontario’s three big nuclear plants alone produce almost 13,000 megawatts of generating capacity and 56 percent of the province’s electrical power. Hydropower generates almost 8,000 megawatts of capacity and 22 percent of the electricity.
The province’s ample electricity supply, and the closing of coal-fired generators, carved political space for Premier McGuinty and his staff to propose generating new jobs in energy innovation and manufacturing with homegrown renewable technology. In 2009, the province enacted the Green Energy Act to promote renewable sources. It included feed-in tariff provisions, modeled after similar programs in Denmark and Germany, which offered 20-year contracts to purchase wind, solar, biomass, and biogas-fueled electricity from producers at generous prices.
The new statute and its revenue provisions spurred a rush of big wind farms. Hundreds of windmills, for instance, were built on farmland along the highway corridor from Windsor to Toronto. Wind generating capacity now measures 2,000 megawatts. That will double in the next 18 months, according to the Energy Ministry, which would mean wind would produce more than 10 percent of the total generating capacity of 36,000 megawatts. The provincial government estimates that 30,000 jobs are connected to the Ontario Green Energy Act and the manufacturing and installation of wind parks.
“It’s a good story to tell, and a lot of people haven’t heard it,” said Paul Gipe, an energy industry analyst from California who worked with Ontario citizen groups to replace coal with renewable energy. “I’ve encouraged Americans to look across the border and learn something.”
Ontario’s transition to cleaner energy sources, particularly in the electrical sector, reflects a trend unfolding with gathering momentum in many industrialized nations.
Electricity generated from renewable energy sources contributed almost one fifth — 19.9 percent — of the European Union’s electricity in 2010, according to commission statistics. From 2000 to 2010, the number of gigawatts of electricity generated from biomass in EU nations more than tripled. During the same decade, the number of gigs generated by wind turbines increased almost seven-fold. A gigawatt is 1 billion watts.
The US also appears to be steadily moving away from coal and toward cleaner fuels.
As recently as 2007, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a research unit of the US Department of Energy, projected that the fuel mix for producing electricity in the US would persist largely unchanged through 2035. According to that estimate, a little more than half of the country’s electricity would come from coal, about 20 percent from nuclear plants, and a little less than 20 percent from natural gas; the balance, roughly 12 percent, would be generated from wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower.
A lot changed over the last five years. In 2012, according to the EIA, US utilities burned 815 million tons of coal for electricity, down from over 1 billion tons in 2005, and the lowest utility coal consumption since 1990. Less than 38 percent of the country’s electricity last year came from coal. As recently as 2009 it was 53 percent. In its most recent assessment, the EIA projects that 49,000 megawatts of coal-fired power — equal to 50 big plants, and 15 percent of existing coal-fired capacity in 2012 – will be retired over the next seven years.
Replacing coal is a surge of plants fueled by natural gas and wind. Last year, gas supplied 29.9 percent of US electricity, up from 23 percent in 2009. And in 2012, with 13.2 megawatts installed nationally (equivalent to 13 big coal-fired plants), wind energy accounted for 42 percent of the nation’s new electrical generating capacity, more than coal and natural gas combined. Texas, of all places, generates 20 percent of its electricity with 12,200 megawatts of installed wind capacity.
In Ontario, 17 new natural gas-fired generating stations have been built and, with 10,000 megawatts of capacity, have replaced the generating capacity that came from coal. Both gas and wind, though, have prompted civic dissent. Citizen opposition forced the cancellation of gas-fired plants in Oakville and Mississauga, two suburbs of Toronto. And wind farms have attracted opposition in rural areas.
The discord over wind, said Tom Adams, an energy consultant in Toronto and author of Tomadamsenergy.com, a blog, is driven in part by a provision in the 2009 Green Energy Act that removed the authority of local governments to review and approve land use permits for wind projects. “People began to feel like their rights were taken away,” said Adams.
Opposition groups formed to stop projects. Ontario issued a formal moratorium for offshore wind development in Lake Ontario. Citizen groups filed lawsuits to halt projects, many of them motivated by fears that projects would reduce property values.
Wind energy development is also being blamed for rising electricity prices in Ontario. But Gipe, the industry analyst, responds that wind development — which accounted for less than 4 percent of all electricity generated last year — isn’t big enough to dramatically affect power prices.
Other factors also are in play, said McKeever of the Energy Ministry, including the cost of expanding and modernizing the province’s transmission grid and refurbishing the province’s big nuclear generating sector.
“The current Liberal government has heard the opposition,” said McKeever, “and is working to address the concerns of municipalities, and restoring some of those authorities. It’s been a learning process for this government.”
• Keith Schneider is senior editor of Circle of Blue. He is a former national correspondent and regular contributor to the New York Times. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about an increase in the development of unconventional sources of oil across the western US and Canada and about how a fossil fuel boom could slow the development of clean energy.
When President Obama remarked in his last State of the Union address that “by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over,” he was signalling the end of something that many media consumers stopped paying attention to a long time ago.
Even if, as Mr. Obama indicates, US troops do withdraw next year, Afghans will undoubtedly be left with a nation that is riddled with problems and ravaged from more than a decade of war.
But that, of course, is not the only story. A new joint venture project between nonprofit Mountain2Mountain and ad agency cum publisher Sharp Stuff seeks to tell the stories that 12 years of war have stifled.
RECOMMENDED: 5 factors for peace in Afghanistan
After carrying out a series of pop-up photography exhibitions in Afghanistan in 2012, Mountain2Mountain executive director Shannon Galpin (who is also a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for 2013) was asked to do a spinoff version of the American Dreamers book, which featured contributions from “people with interesting ideas about way the world could be” in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Dreamers project will feature 15 to 20 Afghan visionaries, teachers, leaders, artists, and movers and shakers who are moving the country forward in the face of great adversity. Project co-producer and photographer Anna Brones, who accompanied Galpin on the trip in 2012, will also be part of the Afghan Dreamers project. She spoke about why our perceptions of Afghanistan are different from the reality:
“It is a conflict zone, for sure, there are a lot of terrible things that happen on a daily basis. But I think as a media consumer we are trained to expect these really terrible things,” Brones said. “There are a lot of really good people doing really amazing things, but the structure that they’re working within is pretty messed up and very difficult to work with. But after nearly a decade of war, I think highlighting our similarities is a lot more powerful that highlighting our differences.”
Haseena Qudrat is an economics lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, founded in 2006. She said a combination of factors – including heavier media focus on the Iraqi war and the tendency to focus on negative stories in Afghanistan coverage – have crippled the nation’s progress.
“The media has constructed a carefully crafted narrative about an embattled country struggling to keep radicals at bay, while success stories go widely underreported,” Qudrat said. “If the media agencies were to report on the current progress and imminent potential seen in Afghanistan we would witness a pivot in public perception that would usher in an era of sustainable long-term projects that yield a flurry of social and economic benefits.”
RECOMMENDED: 5 factors for peace in Afghanistan
Mountain2Mountain director Galpin has been working in Afghanistan since 2007, when she mountain-biked 140 miles across the Panjshir Valley to bring attention to women’s issues. To complete the project, she will use her strong ties to region to find interviewees and stories to feature. The current roster includes Kabul’s mayor, the nation’s first metal band, a female rapper, and a female graffiti artist.
The Afghan Dreamers project is using the independent fundraising website Rally to raise funds to cover travel and reporting costs. In the light of Obama’s recent forecast for the end of the war, Brones feels that getting the funds realized is more important than ever. After the war, she said, Afghanistan’s problems will still persist while media coverage will be virtually nonexistent.
“I asked an NGO worker what his perspective on the country was, and he told me ‘the people are sweet but the country’s a mess,’ ” Brones said. “That’s a very true statement, but the visionaries in this project are the people that are going to move the nation forward. That’s why it’s so important to tell these stories.”
Since she began insuring her crops against erratic weather two years ago, Goretta Wanjiru has gained peace of mind about her livelihood as a farmer. But just as importantly, she has also got her son back.
Wanjiru’s crop insurance is an innovation for Kenya and one of the country’s first schemes covering farmers against losses incurred due to drought or excessive rain.
It comes to the rescue of struggling farmers like the 59-year-old widow, who is now able to protect some of her savings that were previously spent on offsetting her losses.
The plan, run by the Sygenta Foundation, UAP Insurance, and the telecommunications company Safaricom, compensates farmers in kind with fertilizer and seed for losses to crops like maize, wheat, beans, and sorghum, with the aim of helping them restart farming after a loss.
An unexpected benefit, however, is that the added income stability is helping lure some young people back to farming.
As Wanjiru works on her one-acre (0.4 hectare) farm at Kiritiri village in eastern Kenya, gusts of wind flick away dried maize stalks that shrivelled due to poor rains the previous season. Experts attribute the increasingly unpredictable precipitation to the effects of climate change.
“I had insured my seed, so I am not worried because I did not harvest enough,” says Wanjiru as she spreads a handful of manure on the freshly tilled earth. “I am preparing for the planting season.”
Two years ago on a sunny morning like today, Wanjiru would have been working alone on the farm, with only the chirping of the birds and the occasional greetings of a passerby to keep her company.
These days, however, her 32-year-old son, Paul Kariuki, works nearby, persuaded to return home from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, by his mother’s change in farming fortunes.
After completing high school, Kariuki had idled at home for five years because his mother could not raise fees to pay for his son’s college education. Eventually he moved to Nairobi, planning to land a good enough job to support his family. But his high hopes butted up against a tough reality.
“I survived on odd jobs like being a push cart operator,” recalls Kariuki. “The little I earned was not even enough for me to afford a decent meal.”
After his mother talked to him about new projects to support farming, he decided to return home to Embu County.
Kiriuki’s return brought his mother happiness, and also something else of value – a small investment in the farm, where he now grows kale, tomatoes, and onions.
“He was happy when I promised to buy him a water sprinkler to start his own farm project instead of wasting away in the city,” says Wanjiru. “He came back home last year and has moved on with life.”
As he tends the young vegetables just a few yards from where his mother is working, Kariuki hums happily, with an occasional dismissive laugh when asked about his life in the city.
Embu, a semi-arid region, can be a difficult place to reap a harvest. Local weather stations record daytime temperatures as high as 27 Celsius, while the average annual rainfall is about 1,200 mm (47 inches).
But some, like Kariuki’s mother and 11,000 other farmers across Kenya reportedly insured by the scheme, no longer grumble about failed crops.
“I feel less burdened when I receive the insurance compensation,” explains Wanjiru. “I can save some money to do other small investments, and this is how I was able to help my son to start the vegetable project.”
To gain the insurance coverage, Wanjiru was required to buy a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of improved seed and a 10 kilogram bag of fertilizer from a local agricultural dealer, for a total cost of 34 Kenyan shillings (about $0.40).
In the event meteorologists record extreme weather considered likely to harm crops, she and other insured farmers receive an automatic payout equivalent to a portion – or all – of what their harvest might have earned.
Such innovations are being seen in rural Kenya as a way to slow the number of youth migrating to the cities to look for jobs.
The Kenya Institute for Public Policy and Analysis, a think tank, says some of Kenya’s youths are returning to farming because of high urban unemployment rates. According to a recent report by the institute, about 1.5 million youths living in cities are without work due to lack of formal education.
“Most of these youth have skill sets that enable them to adopt to extreme situations,” says James Kinyangi of the Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security. “Kenya needs these skills to develop short- and medium-term solutions in agriculture.”
However, the government believes the return of some urban migrants to their rural farms is also the result of government efforts to use newly “devolved” regional spending to subsidize community projects in health, education, and agriculture to help foster more lively economies in villages.
“Initiatives such as the youth-enterprise development fund provide small, low-interest loans to young people seeking financial support. These help in tackling unemployment,” says Mugo Kibati, chief executive of Vision 2030, the Kenyan government’s growth blueprint. He points to the government’s willingness to work with the private sector, and its support for crop insurance.
At Kariuki’s village, the devolved fund has established an irrigation project that taps water from a distance of more than 20 km (12 miles). Kariuki now draws on this water for his small vegetable plot.
“Starting such an investment would not have been possible previously because of reliance on rainfall, which sometimes failed,” he says. “I left for the city because of unemployment, but now I am learning to be self-employed through vegetable farming.”
• Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.
But now, as he stepped in front of a room packed with soldiers eager to hear his story, he was Herschel Walker, a man with mental health issues. And Walker's message was simple and to the point.
“Don't be afraid to ask for help,” he said. “I did.”
Mr. Walker, the 1982 Heisman winner while at the University of Georgia, said if he hadn't he would have killed someone. Probably his ex-wife. And probably a man who had failed to deliver a package on time.
“I got my gun and I got in my car,” Walker told an attentive audience.
Fortunately for Walker, and for the unsuspecting delivery man, the former NFL running back saw something on the bumper sticker of the delivery van. It read, “Honk if you love Jesus.” That jarred Walker out of his angered state.
“That's when I realized I needed help,” Walker said.
Following treatment and counseling, Walker was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder.
“When I came out years ago, I was hurting,” Walker said. “No one ever saw it. No one knew I had problems. But I did. I said I'm not ashamed of who I am. I love who I am.”
But Walker needed a scary wake-up moment before he admitted he needed help. It required courage.
“It was very tough asking for help,” Walker said. “It's very difficult. I was totally confused. You know I'm Herschel Walker. I've won a Heisman Trophy. I won an NFL rushing title. How could I have a problem? That was it more than anything. Just admitting I had a problem. Even sometimes today I won't admit it.”
Walker recently talked an hour with soldiers at Fort Lewis, Wash., telling snippets of his life story, from when he was a child to when he was a highly recruited All-American running back coming out of high school in George.
Walker, who played for the Dallas Cowboys and four other NFL teams from 1986 to when he retired in 1997, is comfortable in front of a crowd. Without using notes, he talked about the struggles he had as a kid in the classroom and on the playground.
“My teacher told me I was special,” Walker said, a broad smile breaking on his face.
But it wasn't the kind of special he wanted. He said he was transferred to special education because he couldn't read well. At recess, kids made fun of him because he was overweight. Eventually, Walker, motivated by the anger he felt toward his teacher and his classmates making fun of him, began working out and studying hard.
“This is going to freak you out,” Walker told the crowd. “I told my mom the reason I started working out was because I wanted to break the necks of the people picking on me. I wanted to hurt them. I said I didn't want any teacher to put me down any more.”
So, Walker got up early in the morning to exercise and to study. He'd do pushups until his arms couldn't hold him. He'd run by himself until his lungs ached, working hard to turn his fat into muscle.
“I had that anger in me,” Walker said.
It wasn't until Walker went to a counselor after his NFL career ended that he realized his emotional problems, that he had dual personalities that vary between a nice, likeable Walker to an angry, want-to-hurt-you Walker.
“If you remember, every kid wanted to beat me up,” Walker said. “I had teachers who said I was not good enough. So, I said I will become good enough. So I became this guy who became obsessed to become good enough. Now I sit down and tell people who I was. Now, I say, 'Do you know who I am?' ”
With a broad smile, Walker paused and panned the audience. He painted a picture of a desperate man, a man who didn't understand fear or pain. He talked of how he separated his shoulder in a game at the University of Georgia and insisting that the trainer pop it back into place while he was on the sidelines, and not in the locker room, as the trainer suggested.
Off the field, Walker took unreasonable risks.
“I was this guy who used to love playing Russian Roulette,” Walker said. “People would say, 'What do you want to do? Kill yourself?' I'd say no. It was a game for me. Playing Russian Roulette showed how tough I was. I used to say to my ex-wife that I was going to kill her. Later, she told me that I had said that, and I didn't remember it.”
In front of a room packed with soldiers, Walker didn't hide behind his trophies. He revealed his hurting side. He then shared a message of hope with the soldiers, some of whom are having trouble adjusting after assignments in the Middle East.
“I'm here today to [talk with] you if you're burdened, if you don't think you can make it,” Walker said. “You've got problem? Talk with a friend. Get help. God loves you. I love you.”
Wives of soldiers in the audience began wiping tears.
“We have the DNA of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Walker said. “You're somebody. We all have problems. I finally saw that.”
In the past year, Walker has given several similar talks to soldiers across the country. He tells them that people like him with dissociative identity disorder (DID) have emotions beyond their control. He tells them how he created alternate personalities to deal with some of his problems. Those alternate personalities are often the result of profound abuse or a traumatic event in a person's life.
Admitting he needed help wasn't easy.
“But it's easier today,” Walker said. “Years ago if you said you had a mental problem, it would be tough. Today there are so many leaders saying if you've got a problem go get help. Get treated.”
It's Walker's openness about his mental issues that the Army hopes will help hurting soldiers decide to make a call for help.
“One of the things we combat in the military is the stigma that if you're really strong, you don't have problems,” said Col. Dr. Dallas Homas, the commander of the Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis.
And often if a soldier does admit to himself he has a problem, he doesn't tell anyone else.
“I think what Herschel brings is a testimony that it's okay to admit that you have a problem,” Colonel Homas said. “Her's a guy who is a super hero, who is brave enough to say, 'Hey, I've got a problem. I had a problem. I took it on, head on, and I'm better for it.' ”
In his book, “Breaking Free,” Walker writes about his mental health issues. He's said if he could help just one person, then going public with his problem would be worth it.
“[For] every individual out here who might be wrestling with an internal demon or a challenge, Herschel has shown them it's okay to go get help for it,” Homas said. “Not many of our sports heroes are as giving, as selfless, as Christian as he is. He's a model for everyone to emulate.”
Nations as diverse as North Korea and the United States have sent delegations to visit a tiny village in former East Germany to see how it has transformed the way it uses energy.
A 60-minute drive south of Berlin, and home to about 125 people, Feldheim is Germany's first and only energy self-sufficient village and attracts both international energy experts and politicians.
"We're seen as pioneers, and the world wants to know whether they can duplicate our success," says Joachim Gebauer, a former teacher who guides visitors through the remote hamlet. "No coal or gas is burned here, it's all clean."
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Instead, Feldheim is powered by a mix of 43 wind turbines, a woodchip-fired heating plant, and a biogas plant that uses cattle and pig slurry as well as maize silage.
Local energy costs of 16.6 euro cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) are just a little more than half of the 27 to 30 cents Germans pay on average, according to the New Energies Forum Feldheim, an information center.
Feldheim's rates are not far off those in Poland, which generates nearly all its electricity from carbon-intensive coal-fired plants.
Households there paid on average 14 cents per kWh in 2012, while those in the Czech Republic, which relies on nuclear for about a third of its power generation, paid about 15 cents per kWh.
The Feldheim project is just one small part of sweeping changes in energy across Germany aimed at moving away from coal and nuclear power.
The country of more than 80 million aims to derive 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.
It has bolstered wind and solar energy generation, and following Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011 Germany announced that it will phase out nuclear power by 2022.
Yet at an estimated cost of 550 billion euros ($709 billion) through 2050, Germany's energy transformation is an immensely costly challenge.
Last year alone German consumers paid an extra 17 billion euros for energy, including subsidies used to foster renewable energy generation.
Feldheim's low energy bills also reflect subsidies and other help.
To get started, all homeowners in Feldheim had to agree to pay 3,000 euros in connection fees for new power and gas lines, cutting their links to the regional grid provided by German utility E.ON.
The village then received 850,000 euros in European Union and government subsidies to help cover the 2.2-million-euro cost of new pipelines.
Local power firm Energiequelle agreed to install most of Feldheim's wind turbines and in return sells excess power they generate on the market.
The local agricultural cooperative helped by agreeing to use about 350 hectares (865 acres) of land to plant corn for the biogas plant.
Officials acknowledge all of this backing underscores why Feldheim may not be a model that works for large cities around the world, or even across the country.
"You can't do it the same way everywhere in Germany," German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier said during a visit here. "But I believe it can be a role model for many rural communities."
Feldheim is part of the small town of Treuenbrietzen, which was first mentioned in a historic document in the year 1208.
Tour guide Gebauer said that part of the project's success was rooted in a willingness among villagers to help each other out.
"In Feldheim, people stick together," says resident Peggy Kappert.
A handful of other communities around the world are also aiming for energy independence.
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Abu Dhabi's Masdar City project, designed to be the world's first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city, is among the most prominent.
Yet its opening set for 2019 has been delayed until 2025, and officials have conceded it may need some help from external energy sources.
Charles Whall, a fund manager at asset manager Investec, says Germany's own 2050 renewables target was technically possible but could also prove difficult due to high costs and the need for back-up generation capacity to offset swings in renewable energy supply.
(Additional reporting by Michael Kahn in Prague; editing by Jason Neely)