When the Sustainability Institute (SI) was founded in 1999 it began as a movement to improve the homes of people living in poverty to help them conserve energy. Today, it not only reduces the energy footprint of homes, but trains youth in Charleston, S.C., to make the renovations to homes and improve their lives.
The mission of SI is to improve the lives of South Carolinians and to conserve energy where people live and work. SI provides home inspections and improvements to older houses in the Charleston area at no cost to the owner. Once the improvements have been made the owner’s energy bill is reduced considerably.
“My light bill was up there and I had to go get help from Human Services over and over…But the amazing [was] that after I got this done, the first month my light bill went down to $134! It was like $300 a month [before].” Edna Smalls, homeowner in Charleston, said.
SI specifically looks for homes where the energy bill is near $300-500 a month and the owner(s) struggle to make payments. All homeowners have to apply for the services, and so far, SI has updated 215 homes.
Once the application has gone through and the home has been approved for upgrading, SI does a thorough inspection of the home.
“We always inspect the homes first for any structural damage, we check for gas leaks as well,” Bryan Cordell, Executive Director of SI, said. “If we find any damage or a gas leak, we refer the home owners to an organization that can fix the issue. Once that has been taken care of, we go in and upgrade the home.”
SI has a program to train at risk youth to do these inspections and make the upgrades to the homes called Energy Conservation Corps (ECC). Participants in ECC are from 18-24 years old, and are directly from the local community.
The ECC provides participants with training in weatherization as well as a stipend for the 6 months they stay in the program. In addition to learning about weatherization in homes, the participants also have classes in soft skills, such as financial literacy and budgeting.
The program runs for six months every year with new sessions starting in the fall and in the spring. There are nine seats available in the program, and SI fills those seats with men and women from diverse backgrounds. One participant may have a college degree or college experience, and another may not have finished high school. All of them work and train together to better their lives and their community.
“I try to have at least two of our participants be from the Department of Juvenile Justice, another two or three from the local churches, one from Voc. Rehab, one from outside nonprofits, and the rest are filled by the community,” Lawrence Bratton, ECC Program Director, said.
Once a member has graduated from the ECC program, SI also helps them with job placement if they would like to continue in the weatherization industry. Participants that have their high school diploma or GED also receive an educational award of $3,000 that they can use at any accredited institution to study any field they choose.
“We want to prepare them not only for the work they’ll be doing on the homes, but for what they’ll be doing in life as well,” Cordell said.
“We want the individual to be based for success in the long term, not just to get a job,” Bratton said.
When a participant graduates from the program SI also helps them seek employment. The ECC currently has a 98% employment rate with their graduates. Two of the ECC’s graduates have gone on to become AmeriCorps Corps member of the year as well.
“I’m grateful for this program, it’s helped me shape my life and shape my future,” Timothy Gunn, ECC Program Leader and AmeriCorps Member of the year 2016, said. “A few years back I was arrested and had wound up in some trouble. After I got out, I got a job with the Sustainability Institute through AmeriCorps, and now I’m doing so well in the program they promoted me to Program Leader.”
SI is not only working towards improving their community but also working towards breaking the cycle of poverty with their ECC program.
“I don’t have to go to church to see miracles, I see miracles every day when I go to work and I see what our participants are doing to help their community,” Bratton said.