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UCOP staffer brings UC-generated light to South African schoolchildren

Have you heard of UC Santa Barbara engineer John Bowers and the solar light he created to illuminate the dark for the world’s 1.5 billion people without electricity?

Now UCOP’s Suzanne Cross is bringing that tiny technology to Nkomo Primary School in Mnqobokazi, a rural community in Zululand, South Africa, whose 850 students burn kerosene or candles at night to do their homework.

“This is a wonderful way to make a connection between UC and the educational needs of schoolchildren half a world away,” said Cross, charitable asset administrator in UCOP’s CFO Division. She has initiated a campaign at UCOP to purchase 200 of the solar lights for those schoolchildren. And you can help.

The idea is buy one, give one: You purchase two lights, one for you, and the second one to be donated to the kids. Cross will be selling the lights and taking donations at the July 5th first Friday breakfast in Franklin Lobby 1, at the July 12th breakfast at the Kaiser Building and all month long (see more below).

It all started with an African safari vacation in 2002. Feeling like they had seen enough animals, Cross and her partner, John Simpson, took a trip into the back roads to see what community life was like in rural Zululand. That’s when they first met the teachers and students of Nkomo, and a beautiful relationship was born.

“This one school just seemed to touch a note,” Cross said. “Since then we’ve visited seven times and stayed connected, and the whole thing has just created a domino effect of other projects.”

Nkomo School started in 1999 under four large trees that marked the location of the three classrooms and the principal’s office until they could build a building. Hence the title of the documentary film Cross and Simpson are working on, Under Four Trees, which they hope to release later this year.

Cross literally put a roof over their heads and has helped Nkomo and other area schools in several ways, including donating classroom supplies, providing university scholarships for the school’s graduates and, this month, sending two special education teachers to the nearby Khulani Special School for disabled children.

After learning about Bowers’s solar light through UC’s Onward California videos, another project came to life.

“I had been searching for a small solar study light and was very excited to learn of the light developed by Dr. Bowers,” Cross said. You can get a light of your own (they’re very cool!) and get involved in any of these ways:

  • Purchase lights or make donations directly at Unite To Light. Go to “Donate” or “Order” in the navigation bar and select “Mnqobokazi Community, South Africa” under “Donation Recipient.”
  • Contact Cross at to make a donation or a purchase. Checks, payable to Unite to Light, are preferred. (Direct donations are tax-deductible and $20 light purchases are 50 percent tax deductible.)
  • Learn more about Cross and Simpson on their Facebook page.

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