BELCOURT, ND — Turtle Mountain Animal Rescue is one of 67 groups across the nation to win $100,000 from the Department of Energy’s Energizing Rural Communities Prize.
Turtle Mountain Animal Rescue plans to use the grant to provide solar power to the different buildings on its campus, specifically a solar array. It is constructing a larger animal shelter building, youth center, greenhouse and other structures, said Stephanie Figi, a member of the rescue’s volunteer grant team. The rescue hopes to create a resilience hub — a place for people and animals to find shelter and power when the main electric grid goes down.
Figi said the competition for the prize, in which around 800 teams participated, included writing a 20-page essay answering questions about who the team is, how it serves its community, its experiences, how it is going to accomplish its goals and how it is going to follow through with the commitments it describes in its essay. Mani Zagrodnik, the rescue’s “volunteer video guru,” also created a video to accompany the essay.
The prize is part of the $1 billion Energy Improvements in Rural or Remote Areas Program by the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations. It was funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law as a means to show new ways of improving rural and remote areas’ energy systems’ reliability, resilience, safety, availability and environmental performance, according to the Department of Energy. The goal is to provide for areas with a population of no more than 10,000 residents.
When Figi learned Turtle Mountain Animal Rescue had won the prize, she was shocked.
“I was delightfully surprised,” she said. “We work hard to give our community what we have, and it takes a lot of work to find those funds. We lose more than we win by far, so it was a happy surprise and I was in shock for several days.”
Figi got involved with Turtle Mountain Animal Rescue in 2020 while she was staying home and scrolling through Facebook during the pandemic. She came across a video of Keith Benning, the executive director of Turtle Mountain Animal Rescue.
“I saw a video of a guy with a massive beard and tattoos — speaking very softly to tiny puppies to calm them down as he gave them baths,” she said.
Figi watched other videos, such as Benning crying over one of the puppies falling ill and dying, and became inspired to help. She became a volunteer member of the rescue’s self-taught grant-writing team, where she looks for grants and monetary prizes to support the rescue. She found the Department of Energy’s rural energy prize and was thrilled, as large federal grants often aren’t available to nonprofits.
When talking about how she helps Turtle Mountain Animal Rescue, Figi said, “finally my college English major can do some good!”
Keith Benning is also very happy about the prize.
We’re very grateful to have gotten this. … It’s a first step for us to be able to continue moving forward to get to the point where we can be somewhat sustainable on a renewable energy forefront,” Benning said.
Still, there’s more work to be done. Winners of the $100,000 prize can move forward to compete for an additional $200,000, which would fully pay for the solar array the rescue wants to add to its youth center. Still, even if it is to win the second prize, it still needs funds for other work, especially construction.
“We’re currently short of funds of the building we’re putting up,” Benning said.
Otto is a recent University of North Dakota graduate and reporter at the Herald.