Electrician Brandon, left, mentored Bissell employment assistance services client Ron, right, as Ron worked on the LED retrofit and got back on the path to completing his electrician apprenticeship.

Previous collaboration between Newo and Bissell Centre harnessed energy from the sun via a rooftop solar array, but this time around, switching to LED lightbulbs illuminated interiors.

Bissell’s chief operating officer, Louise Traynor, is committed to making Bissell a green-energy leader in its community, and Newo was privileged to have the following conversation with her about the underlying values that prompted the Bissell’s decision to green its energy use (edited for length): 

What drew you to non-profit work?

I started out my career as a mechanical engineer, working in power generation. What’s become clear to me over the years is that I’m trying to live from a value-based place, so where I want to spend my time needs to match up with what I value. 

Can you speak to some of those beliefs and values? 

People have something to offer society no matter what their station in life, no matter what circumstances they’ve come into or through, or are going to face in the future. Some of us start out thinking we’re going to do this great thing and we’re going to give to the community. And you discover over time that it’s actually this real give and take…Just imagine if you could believe in the potential of someone. And within that potential, you could forgive the fact that they are not as logical as you, they are not as equipped as you they are smarter than you. They have more experience and really get it more than you. Imagine if you could extend that to someone else.

What is Bissell Centre all about? 

Bissell Centre is endeavouring to end poverty in our community and bring prosperity, not just financial, but in terms of culture and relationships. Think of prosperity less as the figure in your bank account or the size of your mortgage, but more in terms of being part of a supportive and connected community. That’s the prosperity we’re trying to get towards, although, obviously, it’s hard to feel prosperous when you don’t have enough to meet your basic needs. 

Tell us more about Bissell’s employment assistance services.

Bissell provides employment for folks who are looking for employment and provides workers for businesses who are looking for workers. A few years ago, we asked the folks accessing employment services whether they would be interested in working in the solar industry. We knew already that a lot of the folks that we work with have come from heavy industry and the oil field. I’ll admit we had a little bit of bias about what those folks would be into, but we had a waiting list for a solar training program within a couple of days. We’re just really inspired by the idea that instead of being the people last picked on the team, they could be part of a new industry, of a growing field, of a place where they were doing something new and innovative. I think sometimes we think that folks, because they have lost an opportunity or because they’re struggling, that they’ve lost interest and inspiration in life, and that’s not the case.

How long have Newo and Bissell been working together? 

About five years ago, Bissell applied to EcoCity Edmonton for funding to install solar on one of our buildings and at the same time, utilize our employment services workers to be involved in the installation. We talked with different companies along the way, but it didn’t feel like there was a clear path. We went to this celebration of all the people who had been chosen to receive funding and [were introduced to folks from] Newo, who were already interested in training people, approaching it from this very holistic mindset. We chose to work with them to install the array on top of our Bissell West building, and they did three different training cohorts for folks in our employment services program. Newo has taken a few of those folks since and employed them on other jobs throughout the city and region, which has been just amazing and really builds that confidence and believability for the folks in employment services that this is a pathway that actually leads to something. 

Louise Traynor, Bissell Centre chief operating officer

Could you explain Bissell’s roots and how it’s connected with the United Church? 

Bissell Centre started out as an outreach ministry of the United Church, offering Sunday services and then also the supports people need within that community. As the community changes and grows, the services that Bissell offers change and grow with that community. Right now, we serve a community that is about 50 percent Indigenous, and that has an impact on how we offer services. We are still in the process of learning and discovering what that means and how to do that well.

How has the United Church of Canada’s Faithful Footprints grant helped Bissell complete green building retrofits?

In 2020, we applied to the Faithful Footprints program to do work on our thrift shop. So far, we’ve replaced all the LED lighting there and have been able to bring along two of our employment services participants to be part of that work, to really invest in their training so that they are able to either continue to work with Newo or move into another job placement…Before we went ahead and changed any light bulbs, Newo did energy audits on our different sites. It highlighted which projects have the quickest return and which to invest in first. That’s why we started with the lighting. 

What has the feedback been since the lighting retrofit?

Because we’ve now upgraded all the lighting in our sites to LED, the feedback that I get most often is, “Oh my gosh, it’s so bright right now!” Which, for the thrift stop, for retail space, is so important. You don’t want to have this dark store, because dark communicates dingy, and dingy doesn’t sell. And the purpose of this store really is to generate revenue to support the programs.

What primarily drove Bissell to make these retrofits?

Do you want to save money so you have more to put into services? Yes. Do you want to change the mindset of the community so that this is something that’s valued by other people in the sector, your participants, your staff? Yes. Do you recognize that the people who are hardest and first hit by energy poverty and climate change are the people that you serve who are experiencing poverty right now? Yes. All those things. That’s why we do it. 

What would you say is the value of investing in community?

We all want to be part of a solution that makes the whole community better for everyone in the community. We’re not just in this work to get free stuff for a group of people. We’re in this work because we actually believe that this can make a true difference in the opportunities and the lives of all the folks in our community. And so I think that’s why you want to buy into this type of project and this type of relationship. When we can open a door for someone, when we can support them along that journey, all of our lives are enriched.

Lighting retrofits on buildings owned by the Edmonton non-profit were made possible in part with funding from Faithful Footprints, a United Church of Canada grant program that aims to reduce carbon emissions through energy-efficient retrofits at UCC buildings. Newo acts as Western Canada Regional Support Centre for the program, with co-ordinator Cari Kilmartin helping churches navigate the application process. If you are part of a UCC congregation in Alberta or BC and would like to find out more about Faithful Footprints, connect with Cari by phone: 780-216-1867 or email: cari@newo.energy.