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At a time of strapped budgets, service organizations that find ways to save money through energy efficiency will more easily meet their fundraising goals. CHRIS Kids, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that provides housing to disadvantaged young people, is taking that idea to the next level.

By upgrading its buildings with the latest in high-efficiency technologies, the group will reap the rewards of increased energy savings and, at the same time, teach the next generation about energy-efficiency technologies and behaviors.

In April 2009, CHRIS Kids broke ground on its Graham Circle Project in East Atlanta. It will provide highly energy efficient housing to 17- to 24-year-old residents and expand the organization’s ability to transform the lives of young people through behavioral change.

“All of our programs are designed to help young people transition to self-sufficiency,” says Kathy Colbenson, CEO of CHRIS Kids. “We’ve really been conscious about making our sustainable initiative visible and easy, so that the young people and staff will realize the value and importance of energy conservation.”

In phase one of the project, residents will move into a new, state-of-the-art facility and into four nearby buildings that have been retrofitted with energy efficient technologies at the Graham Circle site. The efficiency upgrades built into the complex include energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, ENERGY STAR® appliances, sustainable building materials, tankless hot water heaters, a tight building envelope and energy-efficient lighting. Construction should wrap up and residents begin moving in early in 2010. Kathy expects to glean 30 percent energy savings compared with a similar building built to code, allowing her to pump more money into providing services.

The apartment complex will be the nation’s first multifamily development built to meet the stringent criteria established by DOE’s Builders Challenge. That program sets high standards for energy efficiency, environmental sustainability, and occupant health, safety, and comfort. The finished apartment complex will feature 41 one- or two-bedroom housing units with tenant amenities.

Phase two includes the construction of a LEED certified services building which will complete the project. The services building will include a mental health counseling center, a computer lab, training rooms and administrative offices. Two grants will complete the project with a two to one match once the remaining $870,000 needed is secured.

But most importantly, the program aims to help young people become self sufficient and to teach them the value of living more sustainably. “Thinking about ways to educate young people to develop the habit of recycling, the habit of cutting the lights off, the habit of conserving resources – it’s an orientation, an ongoing practice,” Kathy says.

Furthering that concept, classroom training of the residents will familiarize them with the building technologies at work around them and introduce them to some of the other amenities: recycling, a rain garden and cistern, and a water-permeable parking lot. Additionally, tenants will receive audits and get feedback from program staff about their energy use. Kathy also plans to encourage conservation with contests, giving residents a little more incentive to see who can use the least amount of energy. Sheldon, a prospective resident of the new housing, says, “I am excited about moving into the complex and about learning more about sustainability that might lead to a green job someday.”

Kathy thinks her new model will inspire these young people to achieve independence and success. “We believe that immersing people in a sustainable environment will help them develop habits that they can use to raise a family, take to work and carry into their lives."

CHRIS Kids provides mental health and family support services, residential services for children in foster care, and housing for young adults who are homeless or aging out of foster care.