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Northwest Minnesota organization enlists solar to power veteran wheelchairs

Middle River Veterans Outdoors (MRVO) is a northwest Minnesota organization that organizes free outdoor recreation opportunities for veterans. Every calendar year, camping, fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities are all a part of the drill. But those involved with the Middle River organization say there’s even more to be energized about.

Photo courtesy of Middle River Veterans Outdoors.

“We’re told quite often that harvesting a goose or a deer, or catching fish, is just a bonus,” says Wayne Kilen, the organization’s founder. “The biggest part of it is the camaraderie and the visiting with other veterans.”

Kilen, a Vietnam war veteran, served in the Navy from 1963-1993. After leaving the service, Kilen and his wife moved home to northwest Minnesota where he worked until retirement. 

“I volunteered as commander several times for the local American Legion. I found it was enjoyable to do something for others. Especially when you’re not beholden to a paycheck, it’s a whole different feeling. So that was my motivation for Veterans Outdoors. Plus I'm getting older by the day, and less able to do physical stuff. I find it’s important to still keep active.”

“Wayne’s a neat gentleman. He gives a ton of his time back to veterans,” says University of Minnesota Extension's Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (RSDP) Executive Director, Shannon Stassen. “It's really heartwarming what the organization does by providing these sort of outdoor experiences for veterans - in particular, veterans that have a difficult time getting around.”

Middle River Veterans Outdoors’ track wheelchair.

To that end, MRVO offers a limited number of off-road electric wheelchairs for veterans who’ve sustained an injury or have limited mobility. The tank-like wheelchairs are equipped with unique wheel tracks that perform on various terrains, allowing users to experience nearly any outdoor terrain with safety and ease.

“They're changing lives, they really are, and making memories for folks that thought they would never do that sort of thing again in their life,” says Stassen. “These wheelchairs open up their opportunities, and they run on batteries that need to be charged. So the challenge for us lies in finding a dependable way to do that.”

Tactical upgrades

MRVO operates out of a large unassuming storage building situated in an open field on the north side of Middle River. Yet, the modest setup hasn’t stopped MRVO from making an ample impact; in 2021 they served 126 veterans and family members, and the waitlist of veterans hoping to go on excursions keeps growing. But when MRVO started acquiring electric wheelchairs that needed to be charged, Kilen felt it was time for a building upgrade. 

“Since it wasn't a critical infrastructure, we thought that solar power would be the way to go,” Kilen recalls. 

Wayne Kilen and Shannon Stassen pictured with MRVO’s internal solar power system.

“Their location doesn't have electrical service,” notes Stassen. “So that’s when Wayne came to RSDP looking for a solution where they could charge the batteries used in the track wheelchairs. Plus they wanted to have lights inside the building and an outside light to shine on their American flag.”

Eager to support MRVO’s mission, RSDP sought the help of the University of Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs). Staff from CERTs conducted a free virtual assessment of MRVO’s site and found solar power would indeed be a good fit. Then, after applying and receiving seed grant support from RSDP, Kilen’s vision for MRVO’s solar-powered building became a reality.

“Essentially it’s a 400-watt system mounted on the front of the building,” explains Stassen. “With an energy storage battery inside the shed to hold the energy produced by the solar panels. Then, that energy is sent out to charge the track wheelchairs batteries. When you turn on the switch inside the building, the LEDs light up the building, and then the light outside shines on the flag.”

Recruiting the community for deeper impact

Located 30 minutes north of Thief River Falls, the town of Middle River boasts a population of 304 residents. According to Kilen, it’s the type of town where word travels fast. Soon after MRVO’s project with RSDP launched, other organizations in Middle River’s community took notice. 

“Right away a few new seed grant proposals came in from other organizations in the town,” says Stassen. “RSDP has a really positive relationship that's been created in Middle River, a lot of good things are happening.”

RSDP board member, Bob Backman poses with Shannon Stassen, and Wayne Kilen outside MRVO.

Other projects in Middle River focus on resilient communities, economic development and tourism. The town has invested in the former school building by creating short-term lodging facilities, gymnasium space and rental space. Making that facility more efficient is a key part of financial viability.

“Now there’s opportunity for more projects in Middle River, and it all started when Wayne reached out with an email,” says Stassen. “It’s really an honor for the University, RSDP, and CERTs to be connected to a group that's doing this kind of work. They’re all volunteers, nobody is getting paid, and they're all doing this to increase quality of life for veterans. So, to me, there’s nothing better.”

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Author Emily Haeg Nguyen works as a statewide sustainability storyteller with the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs).

Banner photo credit: Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership

Permission is granted to news media to republish our news articles with credit to University of Minnesota Extension. Images also may be republished; please check for specific photographer credits or limited use restrictions in the photo title.

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