Meeting the Rest of the Aspire Team for a Mountain Retreat

The morning seemed to come way too early.  I typically wake on my own, but today was not the case.  Natalie opened the door to my room to wake me at 5 AM…only 4 hours after laying down.   But getting up this early has its purpose; we wanted to meet the PACE workers at the end of their shift with a hot breakfast in hand (Natalie’s idea).

Although the young PACE workers were notably tired, their spirits were high.  Sibusiso, the team’s manager, was bustling with pride.  They removed the grease stains overnight with drastic results.  The energy of the men was infectious after Mark received an email stating that the parking lot manager was VERY pleased with their work and rescheduled them for another cleaning.

After a quick return back to Sherol’s for a power nap, we regrouped and headed out to pick up Ed’s rental car.  It was an extremely compact Chevy Volt.  I rode shotgun with Ed, and we were rubbing elbows while he shifted gears.   We proceeded to pick up four other Aspire Youth leaders (African names followed by Anglicized names, if applicable):   Dumisa (Ted), Yonela, Roslin (Roz), and Sindisiwe (Cindy).  All of them have their talents to share:  Dumisa targets educational equity, Yonela targets social equity and women’s empowerment, and Roz and Cindy target business and sales.


Driving on South African roads is an experience like no other.  You need to dodge trucks shifted halfway off the road (to allow you to pass), goats, cows, and the occasional baboons.  But the scenery was stunning; driving straight towards tall, majestic mountains.  The ride alone was an adventure indeed!



We came to a farm/homestead in the mountains.  Reuben, the owner, allowed us to explore his livestock (cows, ducks, ostrich, rabbits, goats, and a single free-range pig) and his trails leading us to a dam and into the wilderness.  The air was crisp and clean, and the surroundings were welcoming.


Back in the cabin, we started to introduce each other and then get to know each other better.   We shared some of our backgrounds, our motives, and some silly stories.  Ed showed us some of his solar products, including solar phone chargers that he put together himself.  When you have a group of likeminded people gathered together for the same cause, it doesn’t take long to form comraderies.  Dinner was excellent – a traditional South African braai (barbeque).  We had roasted chicken and sausage from a wood fire, maize with sour milk, and salad.


I was talking to the Aspire Youth leaders on the front porch while dinner was cooking.  They were helping me speak Xhosa.  I had a terrible time with this; there are so many consonants that are pronounced with sharp <click> sounds that my tongue is not used to doing.  They gave me a name in Xhosa, and they helped me say it:  “Nonceba”.  The ‘c’ in “Nonceba” is replaced by a <click> which is formed from the roof of the mouth.

I asked them what that word meant.  Their answer was “one who cares.”

I choked up.

Meeting Roz, Ed Arrives

This morning, I slept a total of 9 hours:  more than I recall for months!  So my first mission was to coach Natalie regarding the solar jar curriculum.  Mark came to pick us up my mid morning.  There were several conversations with Mark, from the political degradation and corruption which occurred in the past 4 years to the Prasa train which was purchased for South Africa, too tall for the established infrastructure.  Post Aparthied, the current state of South Africa seems to be worsening more than strengthening.  But Mark and other South Africans emphatically counter its political downturn with the spirit of its people.

One of our first stops was of the household of Roslin (Roz).  She lives in Mfuleni, which is a township full of ‘informal establishments’; and one of the most disadvantaged communities.  She is an entrepreneur that runs a small business of upcycling used jeans into jean jackets and upcycles other textiles.  Her business is entitled Siyakula, which is Xhosa for “we are growing”).  Later this week, I’m going to get more of a chance to talk to her in person.

Next was a chance to walk on the beach in Cape Town.  It’s winter, but I couldn’t resist a chance to dip my toes in the water.  The surf was up, and the windsurfers were flying.

After the walk on the beach, we had a late lunch and planning session for the next 9 days.  All seemed so exciting; from talking to stakeholders (similar to Senators in the U.S.) to special interest groups such as an all female group called Feminique.  The schedule seems a bit intimidating, but I’m willing to take on every part of it.

Later that evening, we got a chance to meet up with Ed Bender of Sundance Solar of New Hampshire; my business partner and personal friend.  Ed was suffering from jet lag as we did the night before.  But he still had the energy to show us his solar lanterns for the PAYG solar lantern project, from the ‘basic’ lantern (providing light only) to the more deluxe (containing one or two USB chargers).  It was unbelievable how much equipment he brought along; his equipment took up 3 bags and 200 pounds!


Left to right on the picture above:

Green (basic) solar light, Yellow light with a single USB charger, Red Light with Two USB chargers

Lastly, we got a chance to see another Aspire Youth social enterprise; PACE (Parking Area Cleaning Enterprise) – a small business where impoverished youth environmentally friendly degreasers to remove ingrained oil stains from parking areas of malls, hotels, business parks and residential units.


By the time we got back to Sherol’s house, she had curried chicken, rice, and antipasta ready to eat.  Even though we already had pizza at Ed’s apartment, it was too delicious to turn down.  So after a second dinner and lots of conversation with Sherol and Keith, it was time to turn in for the night.  Our heads hit the pillow by 1 AM (which is 7 PM Eastern Standard Time).

Setting Foot in Cape Town

After a solo trip to Cape Town (Natalie was in a plane before me and wound up getting a FIRST class seat – aargh!), I collected the rest of our luggage and headed out the departure gate.  Natalie and Mark Gamble (leader of Aspire Youth) were waiting for me with a coffee in hand.  It was a welcome sight.   We walked out of the airport, and right there was Table Mountain….the same mountain I was standing on top of 4 years ago.  It ‘hit’ me at that moment that all the work for the past 3 years was actually becoming a reality.

The picture below is Mark driving us to our host family.  Notice anything unusual about the picture?


We are staying at the house of Sherol and Kieth, a lovely couple in South Field, the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town.  They have children:   Keegan (20), Stephanie (25) and Jade (28).  Sherol is a friend and colleague of Mark, and has extra rooms in her house, since their children are grown.  The house has a warm buzz of activity; including friends, granddaughters, and dogs.



I checked Facebook tonight, and saw Mark’s post: “Tomorrow AspireYouth launches its 3rd business unit; Kwelanga solar. The design of which has been done by 2incredible people, Pam and Ed from the USA. So I sit on our garden bench, the winter sun, a tree, birdsong my company, pondering how blessed is my life.”

From “Ya’ll” to “Ja”

Due to a fortunate (but unexpected) wave of acceptances, I was accepted to two expeditions, virtually back to back.  From July 10 to the 16th, I attended a workshop called DUOY (Down Under Out Yonder), sponsored by Conoco-Phillips and the Gulf of Mexico Foundation.  The DUOY workshop centered around educating teachers and informal educators about the biodiversity and significance of the coral reefs found at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS), located 155 miles off the Texas/Louisiana border in the Gulf of Mexico.  We had two days of land-based education, followed by three days on a liveaboard boat, where we completed a total of 11 SCUBA dives at the FGBNMS.  It was the best SCUBA diving I’ve ever had.  I got reacquainted with old friends, made some new friends, and thoroughly enjoyed some Texas fare and hospitality.

But the downside was that I had only one day at home to unpack and repack.  Fortunately, I had most of my luggage ready for South Africa.  Even with this advantage, I still found myself floundering to get ready.  I left my house at 4:30 AM on Saturday morning and drove to New Jersey, where I met Natalie Macke, former TITP attendant who journeyed with me to South Africa in 2011.   I parked my truck at Natalie’s house, and we took a limo service to the JFK airport.


Natalie brought along a total of one suitcase, one large duffel bag, and one large backpack.  This is Natalie’s third trip to South Africa, and each time, she brings along entire suitcases full of donations. I declared one of the suitcases as my own, so that she had no extra fees.  When you put all our luggage together, it made an impressive picture.

Pointing to Plane

Every international flight brings its challenges.   I typically pack light, so I was hoping that my luggage would not get a surcharge.   This worked, but I did not realize that there was also a weight llimit for carry-ons.  With my laptop and a projector in my carry-on, it was twice its allotted weight.   So thanks to Natalie’s help, we got things shuffled out of my carry-on and into my suitcase.

The flight to Johannesburg was took longer than expected to depart.   The plane needed more time to fuel, and the taxi on the runway was backed up.   By noon, I was watching out the window as we took flight across the Atlantic.

I’ve been nervous about this flight, since I knew that sitting for an extended time is not exactly my strongest point.  The trek from JFK to JNB is over 7000 miles and takes about 17 hours from boarding to departing.  The only other South African Airlines flight that rival this distance is from Johannesburg to Perth Australia, or Johannesburg to Hong Kong.

Traveling takes more accomodations, since I’m a self-professed ‘posterchild’ for adult ADHD.   I did what I could to get prepared; I used the treadmill, I was a bit sleep deprived to start, I brought along some Unisom, and I brought along headphones and a mask to silence the sights and sounds around me.  So once I felt the tiredness set in, I tried to block out all those external triggers so that I could at least try to sleep.  It seemed to work – I got about 4 hours of deep sleep on the plane.  For me, that’s a record.  Ironically, there was an article about adult ADHD on South African Airline’s flight magazine (The Truth About Adult ADHD by Laurie Scraborough).   The last two sentences read, “Although sufferers may face social difficulties, many people find them to be refreshingly energetic, adventure seeking, creative, or endearingly childlike.”  Hmmm.

The plane was primarily full of South Africans, since many were returning from holiday.  The plane was booked solid, and you could hear plenty of chatter about.  A common South African colloquialism is the use of the word “ja” (pronounced <yah>), slang for yes.   It’s a bit of a contrast from last week’s Southern “y’alls”.

Packing Up!

This is it!!  I leave in less than 10 hours, so it’s time to double check my pack list!  We’ve got a lot of material to bring along.  Ed himself is going to bring along 200 pounds of solar materials – he’ll be toting a lot of suitcases!

Thanks to Stewart-MacDonald

Last week, we found a company that sells supplies for repairing guitars to see if they have soldering irons in stock (in order to make our solar lanterns).  Ed called to see if they would offer a discount, and they wound up DONATING all 20 of them.

Thanks, Stewart-MacDonald!

Our Mission (Overview)

From the beginning, our ultimate mission and vision was to provide education and empowerment to disadvantaged youth in the Aspire Youth program in South Africa.  Together with Mark’s innate knowledge of the demographics, politics, economics, and culture of South Africa and with Ed’s entrepreneurial, technological, and business skills, our team has developed a “best fit” plan for jumpstarting a youth-driven business in the Cape Town area.  In late July 2015, Pam, Ed, and Natalie Macke (another 2011 TITP attendant) will be going back to Cape Town South Africa in order to train and educate the youth involved and personally launch the programs.  Pam’s return to South Africa is sponsored by the Fund for Teachers (, which supports educators’ efforts to develop skills, knowledge and confidence that impact student achievement.

fund for teachers logo


Our plan involves the launching of two small businesses within Aspire Youth:

  1. The “Peace Lantern” Project – Youth in Aspire Youth will be educated and trained in the technology, manufacturing, and sales of a customized version of the Sunbender Do-it-Yourself Solar LED Jar Light Kit marketed as a South African “Peace Lantern.”  Peace Lanterns will be targeted for sale as a novelty, corporate gift, or souvenir targeting the tourist industry.  Likewise, Pam and Natalie will host a series of educator workshops where South African teachers will be presented with STEAM focused curricula developed around the construction of a solar powered jar.
  2. The “Pay As You Go (PAYG) Solar Lighting Project” – Youth in Aspire Youth will be educated and trained in our customized Pay-As-You-Go Photovoltaic module rental and purchase system which uses mobile phone technology and mobile banking infrastructure to electronically pre-pay for their photovoltaic use.  A variety of payment and photovoltaic module options will eventually become accessible, depending on the needs of the household and community.

How Did The Solar Lantern Project Get Started?

TITP logo

My journey began when I was accepted in 2011 to the Toyota International Teacher Program’s first inaugural trip to South Africa (sponsored by Toyota Motor Sales and the Institute of International Education).

It was the trip of a lifetime (see a 4 min video of my 2011 trip).  I discovered the rich cultural and biological diversity there, but I also saw discrepancies in educational quality, vocational skills, and job opportunities.  Since then, I have partnered with Mark Gamble of Aspire Youth ( and Ed Bender of Sundance Solar ( to develop a way to educate and empower youth both in the U.S. and abroad with the ability to harness renewable energy.

It started with the development of a kit which could turn a simple glass jar in to a solar lantern.  Mark provided the original idea, Ed engineered and designed the components, and Pam developed the STEM-based curriculum and assessments.  Since the fall of 2013, the Sunbender Do-it-Yourself Solar LED Jar Light Kit ( has been on the market for educational and personal use, and has been utilized in the U.S. and abroad.  A portion of the proceeds of the product’s sale has been set aside to fund projects for Aspire Youth, who serves at-risk South African youth in poverty.


Currently, this educational kit is available in nationally recognized vendors such as Wards, Sargent Welch, Edmund Scientific, and Amazon.  Sales of the DIY Solar LED Jar Light Kit have funded the shipment of 20 lantern kits to the Aspire Youth headquarters for pilot use.

We are very pleased with the success of our DIY Solar LED Jar Light Kits, but we have an even grander dream of putting education and technology to work by helping to alleviate energy poverty in lesser developed countries.  While the solar lantern kits have been successful in the U.S., impoverished youth in South Africa are existing off the grid, using kerosene lanterns for light at night.  All the while, safer and cleaner photovoltaic light could be made available to those living in energy poverty at a cost less than the long-term price of kerosene.