Aside from the four years he served in the Marine Corps, Henry Avila has spent his life in Richmond’s Iron Triangle.
Avila, 59, says that it hasn’t always been easy for him—growing up there was a lot of crime in the neighborhood and a work-site accident in his late 20s left him permanently disabled. The years and experiences are etched in the lines on his face. His salt and pepper hair is bunched in a haphazard ponytail that grazes his shoulders and his oversized black sweater is faded and full of holes.
Standing behind his six-foot tall front fence he looks at his home. “I bought this land from my godmother,” Avila said. “I built the house nine years ago,” he added, with a touch of pride.
The house is getting a new addition today, something not commonly seen in this neighborhood—solar panels.
Lead by GRID Alternatives, a non-profit based in Oakland that installs solar panels for low-income families at little to no cost, two other non-profits have come together to make this a reality for Avila.
“I’m so excited for this build,” said Maeve Katherine Bergman, who leads the Green Technology Education program at Laney College. It’s her solar training students that are installing the panels.
Avila’s yard is teeming with these students, many of them, like Avila, are veterans. They’re beneficiaries of Swords to Plowshares—a service organization that helps veterans transition back to civilian life by sponsoring employment training, counseling and housing.
David Ho, of San Lorenzo, stands in the front of the yard, away from all of the hustle and bustle. Wearing the standard issue white hardhat and orange vest he squints up at the roof where his classmates are readying the panel beams. This is his first Veteran’s Day as a veteran; he left the service last year after his six-year contract ended.
Ho was in the Seabees, the Navy’s construction battalion. They build and maintain bases around the world. But, their work also extends to helping communities in third world countries by building schools and wells.
“That’s one of the reasons why I joined,” Ho said. “I didn’t want to just shoot people. I wanted to bring something positive.”
However, with the United States at war, Ho found himself stationed in Afghanistan instead. His job often put him in harm’s way.
“I got shot at while I was over there,” Ho said. “We started hearing a whistling noise right by our heads,” he said as he passed his hands by the sides of his face to show how close the bullets came.
Especially on Veteran’s Day, Ho said Afghanistan is on his mind. “I think about the troops overseas,” he said. “The roadside bombs and the mortars,” he added, trailing off.
Throughout the chilly morning, while slipping panels into place and carefully hooking up the new electricity lines the crew bonded over past military service. One of the crew leaders from GRID, Steve Tate, mentioned he was a vet and right away Cliff Britt, who he was teaching how to run wire into a fuse box, said, “Me too,” and then preceded to describe the nickname his fellow Marines gave him.
“They called me Yogi Berra,” Britt said. “Because of the way I walk, one of my legs is longer than the other,” he said as he mimicked being stuck walking in circles.
Avila watched from the ground—and occasionally from the roof—as the team worked. He didn’t talk much, but he was quick to nod and smile whenever someone said something to him.
GRID estimates that over the life of the solar panels—which they say is 30 years—Avila will save over $22,000, or about $70 a month.
Mara Meaney-Ervin, GRID’s Bay Area Development Officer, said they’ve installed panels on over 100 homes in Richmond. She hopes that families in Avila’s neighborhood will notice his solar panels and consider applying for the program too.
“I think the biggest thing it adds is education and a sense of accessibility,” Meaney-Ervin said. “When one neighbor goes solar, sometimes others in the neighborhood will follow.”
For Avila, who fell off a crane while working in Oakland thirty years ago and lives off of disability, the $70 or so dollars he’ll save each month will go far.
“I’ll spend the money on fixing up my ’57 Chevy,” he said. His eyes sparkle as he talks about it. His passion, the hobby he says keeps him going, is fixing up his two classic cars. The California sun and his new solar panels will help him do it.