Homeless center goes solar, adds to 'faith bottom line'

At the Catholic Action Center, from left to right: Director Ginny Ramsey; Fr. Dan Noll, pastor of Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary in Lexington; Laura Babbage, the center's chaplain; Adam Edelen; and Jamie Clark, president of Synergy Homes LLC. (Bob Babbage)

Lexington, Kentucky — The Catholic Action Center here will soon adopt solar power as its sole source of energy, perhaps becoming one of the first homeless centers in the country to take this innovative step.

Since its founding in 1999, the center strives to meet the spiritual needs of its residents, providing daily prayer services, for example, and it has held nearly 100 funerals for residents who died alone. It also helps connect its guests to the services they need outside the walls of the center. It accepts no government funding and is run by unpaid volunteers.

In April, Catholic Action Center moved to its current location on Industry Road and is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, combining services under one roof that were previously offered in four different buildings. It provides 129 guests a place to sleep and serves between 400 and 500 meals a day. It also has activities, including a choir, bingo, Bible studies, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and has even produced a play, written and performed by guests of the center, which did a small local tour for the center's 10th anniversary.

Ginny Ramsey, who helped found the Catholic Action Center and has served as its director since, said that she began to envision the switch to solar power when she got approval to buy the previously city-owned building earlier this year.

As an organization that provides dozens of showers and several hundred meals a day, Ramsey said "we are a big footprint." She became certain that God was calling her to make the energy switch in June, when President Donald Trump announced the United States' withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

As the center is funded entirely through the good will of the local community, Ramsey initially met with skepticism that the project could find the necessary financing, "but we do our due diligence," she said.

The Catholic Action Center partnered with Edelen Strategic Ventures, a management consultancy also based in Lexington, to help put together a plan. The firm has previous experience as a solar energy leader, helping a local coal mining company open a solar farm on an old mine strip, and is led by former Kentucky auditor of public accounts Adam Edelen, who has worked with Catholic Action Center in the past.

"We believe that the center is the first shelter to go solar without any government subsidy," Edelen said.

Local company Synergy Home LLC installed the panels for a reduced price, and Eastern Kentucky-based Traditional Bank financed the $75,000 project. The center expects that the switch to solar power will pay for itself in the next five to seven years.

"The return on investment is so great," said Ramsey. "There is no other way can you get this kind of [return]."

The center will also be able to take advantage of a Kentucky law that allows buildings powered by solar panels to place some of their power into the electric grid and receive credit on electric bills for energy used when the sun goes down.

Sarah, a Mississippi-born woman who has been a guest at the center and involved in its choir for the past five years, said that the switch to solar power has been "great," in connecting guests and staff to creation.

"It gives us all a better sense of life," she said. "It's about the community."

Ramsey credits the community of Lexington for helping to make the Catholic Action Center and its solar project a reality, from the hundreds of faith communities that support it financially, to the businesses that have partnered in its work or donated food.

"We have been very blessed by the way the community responds," she said. "We connect people; that's our job. All of us are broken and can only be healed by connectedness and relationships."

Ramsey said that even as the work of connecting the Catholic Action Center, its guests and the community continues, so does spreading the word about care for the environment. "It's about more than just saving dollars," she said, "it's about being a witness."

In the days leading up to the switch, Ramsey and Edelen sent out literature explaining both the environmental and financial benefits of going solar to many of the faith groups that support the Catholic Action Center. Edelen believes that the shelter has provided a model for faith communities trying to become more environmentally conscious.

"They found a way to make it work for their faith bottom line as well as their financial bottom line," he said.

In the meantime, the center's work with the disadvantaged of Lexington continues. Ramsey believes that her community has seen an abundance of signs of God's blessings throughout the years.

"I've always said the day we can't pay our electric bill is the day the good Lord is telling us to close," she said. "We haven't closed; we've expanded, and now the good Lord is paying our electric bill."

[James Dearie is a writer from Cincinnati, Ohio. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and theology.]