SolarBuddy’s Illuminating Communities Initiative: Palm Island 

In response to the energy injustices that persist across Australia, SolarBuddy launched its Illuminating Communities Initiative in late 2021. As the Education Program Coordinator at SolarBuddy, I have been closely involved with the program since its inception. Understanding the need to address this issue holistically, the team and I developed two core elements that make up this initiative. The ‘Make 2, Keep 1, Gift 1’ program sees us deliver a unique STEM education experience to students, while the Illuminating Community Spaces aspect brings them light and safety.  

Students at Bwgcolman Community School assemble their lights 

This October, I was joined by a wonderful team of volunteers from TechnologyOne, who have worked closely with SolarBuddy since the beginning of our strong corporate partnership in 2018. Five of us took a flight to Townsville, before hopping on a ferry and landing on the picturesque Palm Island.  

Palm Island

Palm Island is the land of the Manbarra people and the Bwgcolman people, ‘Bwgcolman’ meaning ‘many tribes – one people’, reflecting an unjust but very real history of the island and the Indigenous people who lived and still live there today (Queensland Government).  

Palm Island was historically determined as a place for the forced confinement of Indigenous peoples from 40 tribes across Queensland (Greenleft). Employment was limited, they were not allowed to leave to see their families, were restricted from speaking their languages and had their wages controlled and restricted by the state. State control was not relinquished until 1985 (Greenleft).  

This history, combined with the fact that Palm Island was one of few remote communities left in Queensland for SolarBuddy to visit, led to the choice to deliver SolarBuddy’s holistic Illuminating Communities Program there. 

The first part of the Palm Island trip was to deliver the Make 2, Keep 1, Gift 1 Program to the students of Bwgcolman Community School. Students from Year 3 all the way to Year 9 took part. These are the moments where a real connection is made and the impact of what we’re doing is deeply felt by all of us involved.  

Students taking part in our hands-on STEM education program 

Through this program, students learn about renewable technologies, social innovation and global citizenship, all while having the hands-on experience of assembling 2 solar lights. They keep one light for themselves, and one is directly donated to their new buddy living in energy poverty overseas. To help deepen their understanding of global citizenship, students also write a personal letter to their buddies. On this trip, 150 students assembled 300 lights, and 150 lights and letters will be sent to their neighbours just over 1000 kms away in Papua New Guinea (PNG). 

It was quite special to learn that a teacher from the Western Island Province of PNG, Regina Topa was at the school. She spoke of how excited she was to see her students here in Australia build lights that students back home in Papua New Guinea will receive. She said that the lights would be a vital tool to be used in local schools and remote areas, in the very places she taught for 17 years.  

On Palm Island, the injustices experienced from energy poverty are truly felt. The island’s electricity is run on a diesel generator, which is unreliable and unaffordable for many families. Families use a prepaid electricity card, and energy supply is more expensive.  

In a country so rich in natural resources, we at SolarBuddy think this is unacceptable. There are still 500,000 people in Australia without access to reliable energy, and remote Indigenous communities are the most affected. Almost 24% of their electricity needs are supplied by pollutive, unaffordable diesel fuel, and community or domestic generators are the main source of electricity for 53%. The electricity cards that many communities rely on, like those on Palm Island, fall short of what is needed. 

One teacher shared a particularly confronting story with me about one of her students. She recounted how the young students’ family of 5 had been removed from their accommodation and had no option but to live in a tent on the beach, completely without electricity access. It was shocking to hear that families here on our shores still experience these sorts of situations. The light she assembled at school during this program will provide safety and dignity for her family, allowing them to connect after dark.  

“We thank SolarBuddy for coming over and helping us make these solar lights for people in need in Papua New Guinea or over here on Palm Island.”Nathaniel Seaton, student at Bwgcolman Community School

It was clear during this trip the impact something like this can have in ways a lot of us can’t even imagine. Providing a practical and unique STEM education program is something these children rarely, if ever, experience. The principle at Bwcolman Community School Kate Haines told me that in her three years at the school, the kids had never had a learning experience like it.

On Palm Island, children see themselves represented as football players, nurses, teachers, builders or shop workers. The students took part in a fun and unique STEM activity with volunteers from TechnologyOne who work in the technology industry by their side. It allowed them to imagine themselves in occupations with futures that they most likely never had before. At the end of the day, you can’t be what you can’t see. It was so exciting for these kids and that is the number one reason why we at SolarBuddy do this.

The second part of the program involved working with another close partner, public solar lighting experts Leadsun. Leadsun volunteered their time to install solar flood lighting to a skate park on the island, a community space that was previously completely inaccessible after dark. I worked closely with Michael Bissell, the CEO of Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council, who provided his perspective on where the solar lighting would see the most benefit to the community. He recounted how the skate park is used by 100 children per day, who will now have a space to use for fun, even as the sun sets.  

Providing light to recreational community spaces is important to create safer environments for children and the wider community to come together, giving them something fun to do after dark. By enhancing community values of connectedness, resilience, mindfulness and safety, we help foster a happier well-being for the people of that community. 

This trip with TechnologyOne was another great success in illuminating remote communities around Australia, further solidifying SolarBuddy’s strong partnership with them. Mira Muliajati-Lay, TechnologyOne’s Foundation Manager said how proud she was to represent TechnologyOne on this trip. “At TechnologyOne we believe it is important to give back to our communities and TechOne really values team engagement and we thrive to make a real difference to the communities that we help to make a positive impact.” 

I would also like to thank the community on Palm Island for their dedication in making this trip possible and allowing us to work with them. Thank you to all community members mentioned as well as Karen Hoschke-Mills, the Head of Curriculum at Bwgcolman Community School who put in so much work to bring this program to her students.  

The Illuminating Communities Team at SolarBuddy are only just getting started. We have made it our goal to provide light and solar solutions to 300 of the extremely remote schools across Australia by the end of 2023. So far, we have illuminated 140 of those schools, and we need help from corporate partners to illuminate the rest.  

If your company wishes to join TechnologyOne, reduce the gap in educational opportunities for Indigenous students in Australia and create safer community spaces through light, connect with me at andy@solarbuddy.org  

SolarBuddy

SolarBuddy

SolarBuddy is an Australian impact organisation uniting a global community to illuminate the futures of children living in energy poverty.

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