Ken Smokoska is bullish about smart energy solutions. For the last year he has traveled throughout California with his PowerPoint presentation and his golden retriever Sunshine, addressing local governments, school districts, and town hall meetings, urging cities and counties to enroll in the Community Choice Program to get more power from green sources.
Eldest of eight children, with a dad in the Air Force, Smokoska moved around a lot as a kid and developed a love of the outdoors through his dad. “He got me involved in scouts and took me camping—it was the only vacation we could afford.” These days he loves to head into the Yosemite high country, or the national forests with Sunshine, who he’s enrolling in a search and rescue program.
A machine-shop worker in the Steelworkers Union before attending college, Smokoska logged a stint training on a nuclear sub in the Navy before spending most of his career in marketing. In 2004 he started California Alternative Technologies, where he is director. The company is working with the San Diego School District to design and install solar collectors and other green features.
He is also helping expand a trade technology charter school where at-risk youth can live and study when they turn 18. “Kids get career counseling and vocational training in green trades, earn a high school diploma, and we hook them up with work on renewable energy construction projects.”
Smokoska has raised a dozen adopted teenage boys over the last ten years, the last of whom is going to college this year. “I’m closely removed from a mental institution after that tour of duty,” he jokes.
Larry and Vicki Patton
Larry and Vicki Patton grew up on Kansas farms before meeting in college at Emporia State University. “Our families both helped settle rural Kansas following the Civil War, and have always been involved in the conservation of wild Kansas places,” says Larry, now Dean of Humanities & Fine Arts at Butler Community College. “We devote any time and energy we have toward protecting and restoring the Flint Hills and other prairie ecosystems. We’re seeding another 20 acres this spring.”
Vicki, a library media specialist in the local school district, says growing up in a farm family on the edge of the hills engendered a respect for the land. “I developed a sense of place that many people today never experience. These quiet, remote places that connect people with nature are disappearing to the tune of millions of acres a year. As a schoolteacher and caretaker of agricultural land, I feel compelled to share the importance of prairie preservation with the young people I encounter.”
In 2002, the couple helped start Protect the Flint Hills; Larry serves as president and Vicki as secretary. Their goals include encouraging Sierra Club members and the general public to understand the role that prairies play in the health of the planet. “The tallgrass prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world,” Larry says. “Only 3 percent of North America’s tallgrass prairie remains undisturbed, and most of that is in the Flint Hills.”
In their spare time, they are active in their church, pursue genealogy and research on regional history and folklore, and give “living history” demonstrations with their Percheron horses, a breed once used to carry medieval knights into battle.
Claudia Hilligoss is accustomed to moving around. In a 25-year career with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Indiana native lived in Indianapolis, Tampa, Fort Wayne (Indiana), Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Palo Alto, California, before settling into small-town life in Union, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati near the Ohio River.
There, the avid watercolorist and ceramicist became chair of the Sierra Club’s Northern Kentucky Group. She also worked as a counselor to battered women. “It was hard,” she reflects. “I wanted to take these women home with me.”
While living in Palo Alto in the 1990s, Hilligoss started hiking with a group called Sierra Singleaires, and began leading service trips in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and California. “Leading outings was so rewarding,” she says. “It was very healthy, very healing for me.” In Kentucky, she continued leading service projects at Mammoth Cave National Park and Big Bone Lick State Park.
All the while, Hilligoss was building her own house, working as her own contractor. But when an opportunity arose to work for the Clair Tappaan Lodge, she jumped at it. “My first visit there was life-changing, to be in an area of such natural beauty. I just can’t shake it.”
Hilligoss is now relocating to the Sierra Nevada to serve on the Clair Tappaan Lodge Committee. She also plans to pursue an advanced degree in psychology from the University of Nevada at Reno, specifically eco-psychology and the relationship of women to wilderness. “Outdoor experiences work wonders for our self-esteem and self-sufficiency,” she says. “To spend time up among the alpine lakes, hiking, skiing, and spotting new wildflowers—it’s such a positive lifestyle.”
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