Bellevue teens build solar panels to power homeless encampments

By LiLi Tan

June 6, 2017

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For geometry teacher Walt Hickey, the thought to use solar panels in homeless encampments was a piercing revelation that started a student revolution.

Inside Interlake High School’s metal shop, Hickey is showing students bit by bit how to design, wire and build solar panels.

“I know you know how to drill,” Hickey told one student. “The U-bolt goes in there and the mast goes in there.”

The mast he is referring to supports a solar panel used to power tiny house villages in Seattle’s Ballard and Othello neighborhoods.

“Youri showed up and said let’s do this. So that’s when we did our research on the Internet, got out some schematics, plugged wires in and next thing you know we had light,” Hickey said.

Youri Babakoff, 16, is the co-founder of the club Community Impact Activists.

“We come from an area that’s really lucky and have a lot of opportunities that a lot of people don’t have 13 and I find that just small actions make a big impact on the world,” Babakoff said.

Inspired by Hickey’s work in Mexico, where he has been installing solar panels for families there for the last 15 years, 20 high school students formed the club to help families here.

“I had a friend on the bus and he’s like, ‘Dude, there’s this really cool club we can both get involved in. It’s like a mix of engineering and helping the community,’” Petros Magoulas, 17, said.

Hickey’s nonprofit Camino Maestro donates the parts to students. Each solar panel costs about $115 to build and $10 to ship via Amtrak. The panels students assembled Tuesday afternoon are bound for Mexico.

However, Babakoff says he is now creating a student-run non-profit group to build more panels for families in need in the Seattle area.

“I remember this one lady,” Babakoff said of a tiny house resident, continuing, “she came and hugged us after we installed it and you could really tell how much it meant to her. I felt that’s what really counts.”

Hickey says the solar panels come with USB charging ports so tiny house residents can charge their phones for job interviews, to arrange transportation and to get in touch with family.

Through Farmer’s Insurance, Hickey has applied for a $2,500 “Thank a Teacher” grant to provide students with more funding.

The public can go online to vote for which project should receive funding. Click here and search for Interlake High School.

© 2017 KING-TV