The solar generation: Growing up at SolarFest.

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 6/10/10.] Sixteen years ago, a group of people passionate about the performing arts and sustainable living got together to organize a festival that ran entirely on renewable energy. Starting out as a small gathering in Middletown Springs, the annual event has grown to become “New England’s energy and music festival.”

But SolarFest is more than one weekend in July. Dedicated volunteers work together year-round not only to plan the festival itself but also to promote the organization’s commitment to teaching and demonstrating “the power and sensibilities of renewable energy and sustainable living at conferences, performances and venues throughout the year.”

Along the way, a community has formed around SolarFest, which is much more significant than the three-day festival that most people see. It is a closeknit network of families and friends who are connected by their passion for the environment and the arts.

For the young people who have grown up with SolarFest, that community has in no small way shaped their lives as they have become adults.

“There’s a whole generation of kids for whom SolarFest is all they’ve known,” said Rachel Fredette, 25. Rachel was 9 years old when she attended the very first SolarFest with her family. She started volunteering soon after – first as a runner, and then, answering phones, working in the box office and with the food vendors.

Rachel is grateful to her parents for teaching her about sustainability and the environment from a young age. She notes that building environmental awareness is important, but that people need to show it rather than tell it.

“Some people approach sustainability as a guilt trip,” she said. “It’s important to demonstrate it, to teach people to love the environment, and to empower them.”

Within the SolarFest community, this ethos is omnipresent.

“It’s so inspiring to be around people who are living it,” she said.

As Rachel has gotten older, her involvement with SolarFest has deepened. She now acts as the Solar Generation Youth Coordinator for the event. The Solar Generation, now in its second year, is a workshop track designed especially for young people ages 25 and under. The program gives young people attending the festival with their parents a chance to meet some people their own age. Local youth volunteers act as “ambassadors” and make themselves available to show them around.

While the festival had in the past featured a “Kids Corner,” Rachel noted that there was never a specific focus for children or young adults. As the younger SolarFest generation has matured, they have stepped in to give back by developing workshops for younger festival attendees.

The workshops themselves provide participants the opportunity to have fun, learn and gain skills that they can take home with them, and hopefully, give back to their respective communities. Activities include a site tour, a movie night and papermaking and composting workshops. (A full list of Solar Generation workshops can be found at http://www.solarfest.org.)

Indeed, the SolarFest community has left an impression on those who grew up within it. For these young people, it’s an experience that they look back upon fondly, and carry with them as they go out into the world.

“Solarfest was a very important part of my childhood,” said Rachel’s sister, Lisa Fredette, 22. “The day after the festival I would feel disappointed that there were 364 days until the next one. It was such a part of my life that it never occurred to me that other people were not raised to care about the environment.”

Young people like Lisa and Rachel, who grew up and volunteered at SolarFest, have acquired valuable skills and experience, which have helped them to build their résumés and have access to a network of people who are able to provide guidance in exploring future careers in education, renewable energy or sustainability.

Lisa credits the “people and atmosphere” around her at SolarFest for instilling in her the value of environmental education. She studied Environmental Science and Ecological Design at the University of Vermont, and hopes to attend graduate school where she will continue her studies in those fields. Ultimately, she hopes to teach – sharing her passion for the environment and her workshop experience at SolarFest with another generation eager to learn.

Patty Kenyon, managing director of SolarFest, is pleased to see how the younger generation of festivalgoers has become involved.

“It is so encouraging to see the young people who grew up with SolarFest turn the corner into adulthood and continue to be interested, and not only just interested, but excited and passionate about helping SolarFest succeed,” she said.

Of how the festival has shaped the way in which these young people view and interact with the world, Kenyon says she is “proud and humbled,” noting that their “drive and dedication to make the world a better place … transcends this small event that happens one weekend a year.”

Lisa noted how she has seen the festival grow and change over the years – from its modest beginnings in Middletown Springs to its current booming incarnation at Forget-Me-Not Farm in Tinmouth. What started out as a small community of friends has evolved into an event that draws people from around the world. However, she is quick to note that this growth has not “diminished the SolarFest spirit.”

Indeed, she is glad that SolarFest now has the opportunity to reach so many more people who can take what they learn and experience at SolarFest out into the world.

“If we can get enough people in active thought about making the world a better place, then we actually have a shot at it,” she said. “I am so proud to be a part of what I find to be an excellent step in this endeavor.”

SolarFest returns to Forget-Me-Not Farm in Tinmouth on July 16, 17 and 18. For tickets, workshop and music schedules or additional information, visit http://www.solarfest.org.

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