WARWICK, R.I. (CNS) — Not everyone is fortunate enough to enjoy the Christmas season inside a cozy home while the bitter winter wind whips outside.

Some people don’t have the means to combat the cold weather by turning up the thermostat and sipping a cup of hot chocolate.

It’s a fact that’s not lost on six members of the Westerly Innovations Network, known as WIN, who formed Project Turn Grease Into Fuel, or TGIF, a student-led program that encourages residents and businesses to recycle used cooking oil, which is then converted into biodiesel and donated to charities that support people who require heating assistance.


“It makes me realize how blessed I am,” said Miles Temel, 16, a parishioner at St. Clare Parish in Westerly. “There are things I take for granted like being able to get into a warm bed every night. Why should anyone be deprived of that? Why can’t everyone have that? Why should we just stand idly by when we are able to help?

“It is our moral duty to help our brothers and sisters who are less fortunate,” he told the Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Providence.

Temel, a junior at Bishop Hendricken High School, along with his fellow WIN members, recently presented donations to eight local agencies that help people heat their homes. Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s “Keep the Heat On” campaign was among the recipients and received 2,000 gallons of biofuel.

“Our work is especially important this time of year as we begin to enter the holiday season,” Temel said during the Nov. 25 ceremony at Hendricken. “As a student at Bishop Hendricken, I’m constantly reminded of the importance of giving back to the less fortunate in our community.

“I’m especially honored that over the past year, we have developed a new and special partnership with Bishop Tobin and the ‘Keep the Heat On’ program.”

Bishop Tobin, who attended the event, smiled as students described their efforts. He said he was honored, as well as impressed, by their dedication and generosity.

“We’re so very proud of you and the work that you are doing,” said Bishop Tobin. “In my name and the ‘Keep the Heat On’ program, we are very grateful for your thoughtfulness and for your personal and financial support. There will be many families and individuals throughout the state who will benefit and have heating assistance during the cold winter months that are sure to come.”

Since forming the Turn Grease Into Fuel project in 2008, the students have donated approximately 40,000 gallons of biofuel, which is used to heat about 400 homes. Aside from “Keep the Heat On,” several other organizations have benefited.

According to Isaac Kaufman, 16, a junior at Westerly High School, the biofuel project has collected 180,000 gallons of cooking oil and offset 3 million pounds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the last seven years. He went on to say that there are public receptacles in 22 towns and cities in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, covering an area of at least a half a million residents. More than 160 restaurants and businesses participate in the program.

“It’s one of the best opportunities I have to give back to the community because it’s a direct influence to the members of the community,” Kaufman said. “It’s awesome.”

His fellow group members, Taylor Fiore-Chettiar, 16, Vanessa Bertsch, 16, and John Perini, 16, who are also juniors at Westerly High School, as well as Cassandra Lin, 16, an 11th-grader at William’s School in New London, Connecticut, agree. They said it’s great to help families and make a positive difference in many people’s lives.

The students got the idea to spearhead the initiative when they were in the fifth grade. They read an article in their local paper that noted how many residents were unable to heat their homes because of the poor economy. Adding to the strife, local charities were running out of funds to help.

Upon visiting the Green Energy Solutions Expo at the University of Rhode Island, they learned that cooking oil could be converted to biodiesel, a clean burning alternative to fuel. It can be used as home heating oil or to power vehicles and boats. Each gallon of petroleum-based oil replaced by biodiesel offsets 20 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

They began brainstorming ideas, and eventually spawned the TGIF program through of the Westerly Innovations Network, a student-led, nonprofit community problem-solving team. As noted, they advise residents and businesses to recycle the oil instead of dumping it down the drain, where it can damage septic or sewer systems, as fats, oils and grease are the leading cause of clogs in sewer systems.

Wanting to help even further, they visited their Town Council and asked council members to install waste receptacles to enable residents to recycle oil. The students also works with Newport Biodiesel, a grease contractor that collects oil from restaurants and receptacles before bringing it to a refinery, where it is converted into biodiesel.

The team then drafted a bill, suggesting that businesses recycle their oil. After meeting with a group of legislators, the bill was passed in 2011, with Gov. Lincoln Chafee signing it.

“Passing the bill was a huge triumph for us because we knew that would be the thing to put our project in a statewide spotlight,” Perini said. “We knew it would make an impact throughout the entire state and it would really help advance our project.”

As a result, the students gained media attention, and were featured on major networks, including CNN, MTV and more. They were also invited to the White House on two occasions for recognition, and received numerous awards.


Botelho is a staff reporter at the Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Providence.