April 9, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:00 pm

It takes a village | Norwalk-based Viridian Energy gives Ghana hope, solar power

Students in a rural village in Ghana are studying after dark (above), thanks to a philanthropic project launched by Connecticut’s Viridian Energy. The energy retailer brought sustainable power to the communities as part of its ‘7 Continents in 7 Years’ program. Below, Sabrina Allard of Watertown, one of the Viridian employees who volunteered for the 10-day project, works with students in the village library.

When childhood friends Jenna Marzullo and Sabrina Allard joined the sales team of Viridian Energy, Connecticut's largest supplier of green retail energy, in the fall of 2009, they both hoped their company, in part, would help create a smaller carbon footprint in the world.

But the company is also making footprints of a different kind through its '7 Continents in 7 Years' project, a global, eco-friendly initiative to provide renewable energy to a community in need on each continent, including a remote rural village in the West African nation of Ghana.

For Marzullo, who lives in Winsted, and Allard, from Watertown, the 10-day project this February to build solar panels on schools, health posts and community libraries in Ghana's Atiwa District, was as inspiring as it was eye-opening.

"The villages we helped we're very isolated" Marzullo recalled. "There was no running water." In fact, the CIA's World Fact Book estimates nearly one in four people in Ghana's rural areas lack access to drinking water and 93 percent of its rural population lacks sanitation facilities. The villages' energy supply was also very unpredictable, according to Marzullo, noting the village "lost power two or three times a day." That was a significant health concern in a village that couldn't store and refrigerate pharmaceuticals. "Without medicines, villagers would have to travels hours [to seek medical help] in Ghana's urban centers," Marzullo explained.

Rural Ghana is not alone in its energy problems. According the United Nations Group on Energy and Climate Change, more than 2.5 billion people worldwide have with no access or unreliable access to electricity. It was a problem that Viridian Energy, helped to address in Ghana. "Our team [of 34 sales associates and corporate executives] helped provide [the villagers] with sustainable power to help themselves," said Allard.

Viridian volunteers also helped — in collaboration with an organization called Empower Playgrounds — to install merry-go-rounds that helped generate power for lanterns that village children could use in their homes. "Most of the children had never seen light in their homes at night," said Allard.

But Allard's proudest achievement was less about lantern light than the light of knowledge. "In advance of our trip to Ghana, we conducted a book drive that collected more than 6,500 books that [in part] we were able to use in the village library, which was a tiny 500-square-foot building" she said, noting her team also helped implement a color-coded inventory system. "It was amazing to watch children seeing images [in books] they had never seen before."

But it was not just the children — or the villagers — who learned from Viridian's project, Allard and Marzullo point out. "What these villagers lacked in materials good, they made up in joy," said Marzullo. "They have no radios, TVs, or distractions and it really taught me the importance of a balanced lifestyle; we [Americans] can learn a lot from [their lifesyle]."

And although there were aspects of life that both missed about Connecticut — for Allard, her children; for Marzullo, a hot shower — both plan to participate in Viridian's Year 3 project in 2013. "All we know is that it'll be somewhere in Asia," Allard said.

For now, that's all Marzullo and Allard need to know, as they and their colleagues look to leave another eco-footprint somewhere in the world.

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