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Ideas! Action! Results!

Start at home.

Tackling society’s most-pressing challenges often requires home-spun, grassroots endeavors. Throughout Southwest Florida, innovators are experimenting with solutions for energy, education and healthcare—all among the biggest problems facing the country, according to speakers at last year’s Imagine Solutions Conference.

The two-day convergence of national and international experts, presented by Naples-based Searching for Solutions Institute, was designed to get attendees talking and doing. In the year since, many local participants have joined the Institute’s I.D.E.A. (Innovative Discussions Enabling Actions) teams to take on these issues, working both independently on solutions or aligning with existing programs and initiatives. Here are some of the results.



Nature-Derived Power

Last year’s lingering Deepwater Horizon oil spill drove home the need for tapping into alternative energy sources: fuels that don’t impact air-quality or present the potential for a catastrophic environmental disaster. I.D.E.A. team members Mike Kitchen and Don Gunther think the answer lies in a combination of existing sources—solar, natural gas and nuclear power—and innovations taking place in agricultural fields throughout Southwest Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University’s fledgling research and development facility.

Solar energy and certain biomass crops could potentially harness the power of Florida’s most plentiful resources: the sun and an estimated 12 million unused and plantable acres. But solar fields, such as the 12-acre facility at FGCU and Florida Power & Light’s 180-acre Next Generation Solar Energy Center in nearby Desoto County, aren’t particularly prevalent in the Sunshine State. FPL, the state’s leading energy producer, continues to rely on mostly oil- and coal-burning plants and a smattering of nuclear facilities, each with glaring disadvantages: natural resource depletion, greenhouse gas emissions and used uranium disposal.

FGCU’s solar field generates 18 percent of the Estero campus’s electricity. Solar energy also powers an enormous trash compactor, and water—frozen during off-peak hours—provides air-conditioning to the university’s three newest buildings. Desoto’s plant, visited in October 2009 by President Barack Obama, converts sunshine into clean energy for about 3,000 homes while offsetting 575,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

In Felda, fourth-generation farmer Bill Vasden Jr. is growing biofuel crops that burn without a petroleum additive and don’t impact food supplies. The plants, camelina and kenaf, are ideal for unproductive citrus and cattle fields, require no water other than rainfall, and produce fuel to power jets and farm equipment, says Vasden, chairman of the Florida Feedstock Growers. The fuels also meet military mandates: a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use for the Air Force and Navy in 2016 and 2020, respectively.

“Given the right amount of government and military support, these crops could make a significant impact on fossil fuel consumption, food supply and national security,” he says.

Though not “miracle crops”—camelina does emit greenhouse gases—both are expected to help fuel FGCU’s innovation-Hub, or iHub, a 241-acre research and development facility that will attract businesses committed to developing sustainable and renewable energy sources. University President Wilson Bradshaw, who met with Imagine Solution’s Kitchen and Gunther last summer, is banking on the public-private partnership—with support from Searching for Solutions Institute—to produce “not one, but a thoughtful combination of technologies.”

The 1.2 million-square-foot research park will have its own alternative energy plant, a $12 million university research facility next to a photovoltaic lake, and a 20-megaton biomass conversion facility that Vasden says will “run on kenaf grown in surrounding farm land. This will be one of the first biojet facilities in the country, and it’s a shining example of an agricultural tie-in.”

In his keynote speech at last April’s groundbreaking, Rep. Connie Mack commended iHub’s potential. “This is much bigger than just the future of Southwest Florida,” he said. “It’s the future of the state, and frankly, it’s the future of our nation.”

FGCU will also create the John D. Backe chair, named for the former CBS executive and Southwest Florida resident who donated $1 million in seed money to attract an eminent renewable energy expert to the university.

“We also have to encourage innovation and see these projects are brought to use,” Kitchen told Bradshaw. “Who knows, we could end up with a national energy plan from discussions like this.”



Exercise, Eat Your Veggies

We all know the secret to losing weight: Reduce calories and increase exercise. But Americans haven’t
gotten the message. Obesity is now a national epidemic, fueled by our shift to a sedentary lifestyle, readily available convenience foods and a super-size mentality.

In 2009 nearly 2.4 million more adults were obese than in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now the national norm (two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese), the epidemic is also weighing heavily on the country’s healthcare system, adding $147 million to the national healthcare tab in 2008.

“Obesity is the second preventable contributor to death,” says Dr. Judith Hartner, director of the Lee County Health Department. “Being overweight leads to hypertension, heart disease, osteoporosis, depression. The list is quite long.”

It can also contribute to certain cancers and type 2 diabetes, the latter targeting children at exponentially rising rates and a concern for members of one I.D.E.A. team. “Being healthy improves your quality of life,” says member Gail Markham. “For businesses, having healthy employees helps financially. It reduces healthcare costs and lost time, and improves employees’ attitudes.”

In her quest for information, Markham soon learned about Lee Memorial Health System’s success with the three-year Fit Friendly START! campaign, offered through the American Heart Association. Since launching with a simple goal of promoting walking for exercise, the program has reached nearly all community stakeholders, from private businesses and local governments to social service agencies and schools, says Sally Jackson, Lee Memorial’s community projects director.

“START! was about walking to achieve fitness and eventually evolved to include food and nutrition,” she says. “It’s now a community-based wellness program.”

From a simple premise—walking as a tool to fight the battle of the bulge—the campaign has grown to identify factors increasing the obesity problem. It has helped government rewrite policy to mandate walking paths in new parks (45 are completed or in the process), promoted neighborhood gardens as a source for fresh veggies, and challenged local businesses to increase employee fitness and health.

The success of Lee County’s Fit Friendly program has also caught the eye of the AHA’s top brass, who participated last summer in a round-table discussion about implementing the second three-year phase. That next step, says Jackson, will expand the program into Charlotte and Collier counties, a project Markham and her team will help shepherd. “In my opinion, our health team has done its job when this becomes a Southwest Florida initiative,” she says.

In Lee County, it helped that district-wide initiatives removed fryers from 87 school kitchens and eliminated potato chips, soda and even Gatorade from its menu. Vending machines, off limits during the school day, were reformatted to contain only 100 percent juice, milk and fruits—healthful items Wayne Nagy, Lee County Schools’ director of food and nutrition, says meet the U.S. dietary requirements for healthy Americans. “We have a full-time dietitian, and nothing leaves our kitchens without her stamp of approval. This year, we’ll spend over $1 million in fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The program, a national model, has helped students develop healthy life-long eating patterns. “One mother told me she took her children to the store, and they wanted cucumbers and pears for snacks,” says Nagy.

Through their Fit Friendly affiliation, several social service agencies are also bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to Lee County’s poorest residents. The Everyday Market at CCMI, a Fort Myers soup kitchen and food pantry, offers clients fresh options beyond the traditional bread, peanut butter and canned foods. Harry Chapin Food Bank, which distributes food to 170 nonprofit organizations, has increased its fresh produce allocation from 50,000 pounds three years ago to more than 2 million last fiscal year. Executive Director Al Brislain hopes to top the 3 million mark this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

 “There are a lot of reasons for obesity, but one of the contributing factors is that nutritious and low-calorie food is not cheap food,” he says. “Low-income people are in a position where they can’t afford what’s best for them.”

Removing temptations, such as vending machines loaded with sugary drinks and candy, from public places and offices is a good start, says Hartner. But also needed are deeper systemic changes that create less reliance on the automobile.

“We have to build an environment that promotes walking, and it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight,” she says. “Look at the changes that have happened in society to smoking. When I was a kid, everyone smoked, and it was accepted. But during my lifetime, we’ve made societal changes. It’s harder for kids to smoke, and it’s not acceptable.

“We have to make incremental changes in addressing physical activity and good nutrition,” she adds. “While we were changing society to make smoking more difficult and less acceptable, we were also changing it to a more sedentary lifestyle and a bad diet.”



Teach Skills for Real Jobs

Imagine Solutions Conference attendee Robert Bee, vice president of brand strategies for Fort Myers’ 4What, was impressed by the program’s social entrepreneurs—young men and women who identified a social issue and solved it. He and his I.D.E.A. team members were developing the concept of a “beauty bus” that would bring a mobile salon to the women of Immokalee when they learned that iTech, the Collier school district’s year-old school in Immokalee, was not only offering low-cost services but also training these women for careers.

A melding of vo-tech training and college, iTech was born from a task force of school, government and business executives challenged to look into the future of education. Their answer: a school that offers traditional courses such as woodshop and auto repair, but also trains licensed practical nurses and aspiring restaurateurs, and provides college credits for 100 dual-enrolled Immokalee High School juniors and seniors. What propels the 730-pupil institution above the tech school stratosphere are student-run businesses that are open to the public: a restaurant/bakery/coffee shop, beauty salon, auto repair shop and day-care center. There’s even an on-site family practice that provides hands-on training for student nurses.

Bee’s team is looking into ways to tweak its idea to complement iTech’s programs. Instead of a beauty bus, they’re considering creating a shuttle for students and community members in need of transportation to iTech’s classes and on-site businesses.

ITech’s 15 programs—from 165 to 1,800 credit hours—are tailored specifically to Southwest Florida’s employment needs, says Principal Dorin Oxender. “We aren’t here to train people; we’re here to get them jobs. Students work in the actual environment. They learn how to deal with customers, how to work with others and how to problem-solve. It brings more realness to school.”

Students in the culinary arts program, for example, create the menu for the iTown Café and also operate the school’s 300-seat banquet facility.

ITech is a huge initiative that gives Immokalee’s working poor a fighting chance. And it starts at the most basic level: Half of the students here are enrolled in free GED and English-speaking classes; Oxender predicts many of them will eventually transition into iTech’s career training track.

Perhaps the school’s biggest innovation lies in its strategic alliances with the Southwest Florida business community. Sam Galloway has partnered with the school’s auto shop, and a $500,000 start-up grant from Caterpillar International funds an instructor’s salary and equipment for the diesel mechanic shop. Everything here is state of the art, from the 500 student computer stations to a full-service multimedia lab and the $75,000 robot (lovingly nicknamed iStan) that can simulate 160-plus illnesses.

School personnel are also experts at acquiring federal, state and local grants to defray student costs, from the $252-credit-hour tuition to the price of knives for culinary students and tools for future mechanics. They also connect students with local agencies for help with books and uniforms, traditional grant sources and financing through programs for veterans and displaced farm workers. About 95 percent of iTech’s students receive financial assistance.

Aspiring chef Larry Sanchez, who worked at a packinghouse, qualified for aid through the farmers program; a sponsor purchased his knives, uniforms and books.

The school draws students from North Fort Myers and Clewiston, but its main demographic is Immokalee residents, among the poorest in the county. “Immokalee has always been underserved,” says Oxender. “The high school’s graduation rate is not good, and it has a high dropout rate. We built iTech across from the high school as a beacon of hope, that if students stay in school, there is light.”

Its location factored into Diane Devonshire’s decision to enroll in the licensed practical nurse program. “It took me 10 minutes to get to school as opposed to 45 minutes to Lee County,” says the Hendry County resident.

Devonshire, a single mother of three, mirrors the demographic of many iTech students who are also raising families. Her classmate Aurella Sainz not only continued to work at Seminole Casino while attending, she was also pregnant with her third child. “My son was born Saturday, and I came back Tuesday for a test,” says Sainz. “I was lucky my husband could take time off and care for the baby. My family was a big help.”

Family support and ambition are important to student success and are factors interviewers consider when screening potential students. “We want to see if their heart is in it, if they have the drive and the passion—and family support,” says Oxender.

Sainz, the 31-year-old granddaughter of migrant workers, now works at Shell Point Retirement Community in Fort Myers and one day hopes to become a nurse practitioner. Devonshire returned to the health department and its Healthy Start program in Immokalee at nearly double the salary she was making two years earlier as a certified nursing assistant.

In a nutshell, iTech is building the future of Southwest Florida’s workforce. And apparently the confidence of its participants, too. During a round-table discussion about the importance of the farm workers program, Sanchez, the aspiring chef, asked U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis for a job.

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