Board Chair and Co-Founder John Bowers, President/CEO Megan Birney-Rudert, and Boardmember and Co-Founder Claude Dorais | Credit: Gail Arnold

On October 6, Unite to Light (UTL) hosted its novel and inspiring Glow Gala, which raised awareness and funds for its work providing solar lights and solar chargers to people living without electricity. The event was part of a three-night extravaganza at the Community Arts Workshop, which collectively drew 425 guests. The second night was the Bright Bash party, and the third, the free Community Showcase.

At the intimate, formal Glow Gala, the evening began with a reception where guests mingled and checked out interesting artwork. Each piece used light in a unique way, and 30 percent of sale proceeds went to UTL. Many of the 40 artists were students, but the roster included established artists as well, including Marco Pinter, RT Livingston, and Rod Lathim.

Before dinner in the courtyard, President-CEO Megan Birney-Rudert welcomed guests and related how when her team arrived at 8 a.m. that morning, they discovered a blown transformer meant there was no power. “Kind of ironic,” she noted with a smile, given the organization’s mission. A resourceful team rallied to light up the event with a generator, so many guests were not even aware of the day’s challenges.

Birney-Rudert acknowledged many notable guests, including UCSB professor Shuji Nakamura, who received the Nobel Prize for the invention of the blue LED light, the key to white LED lighting. She explained how since inception in 2011, UTL has distributed 175,000 lights in 79 countries, and she highlighted some of this work.

Earlier this year, UTL supplied 3,900 lights and chargers to Ukrainian refugees in neighboring countries and to Ukrainians still in country. Another 500 lights will soon ship to Ukraine Smart Aid International for distribution to Ukrainian hospitals.

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In South Africa, more than 9,000 lights have been distributed through a “light library” maintained by a school district. To help quantify the benefit of the lights, which have allowed students to study after the sun goes down, UTL gathered graduation data for the three years prior and three years after the introduction of the light library and found a stunningly impressive 30 percent increase in graduation rates.

UTL is working with the University of California, the nonprofit Solar Sister, and the company d.light on a carbon offset project that will help people in Tanzania switch from kerosene lighting to solar lighting. UTL completed a pilot project in 2020, and a major project is planned to start next year. 

While UTL’s focus has been on the developing world, the chargers have also been distributed in the U.S. to homeless individuals. From a small project with the Safe Parking Program here in Santa Barbara in 2019, the distribution ballooned during the pandemic because homeless individuals were cut off from accessing their typical places to charge their phones, while at the same time needing their phones more than ever to communicate during the lockdown. In 2020, more than 3,000 chargers were distributed through partner organizations in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and beyond.

After the paddle raise led by Geoff Green, Isla View provided live music for guests to dance away.

According to UTL, one in seven people live without electricity and rely on candles or kerosene lamps that are dangerous, polluting, and expensive. UTL focuses on projects that help children, midwives, disaster victims, and homeless individuals. The original light was designed by UCSB’s Institute for Energy Efficiency and UCSB’s Engineers Without Borders. It was later made waterproof and stronger, and UTL added a charger because of the importance of communication. 

Most all of UTL’s lights and chargers are distributed through nonprofit partners, to whom UTL donates or sells at cost. This year, UTL has sent out more than 24,000 lights and nearly 3,000 chargers, with about a 30/70 percent split between donations and sales.

A small percentage of sales are made through UTL’s “Buy One, Give One” program, where for every light/charger it sells, it donates one. Lights and chargers can be purchased online at

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Yuki Nakamura and Nobel Laureate Shuji Nakamura | Credit: Gail Arnold
Boardmembers Gisela Voss and Suzanne Cross | Credit: Gail Arnold
Contributing Artists Sean O’Brien and Rod Lathim | Credit: Gail Arnold
Event Committee Member Michelle Weinman with Boardmember and Event Committee Member Dawn Mitcham | Credit: Gail Arnold


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