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Finding Partners Through Connections: Supporting Uvalde County with Solar Eclipse Resources

We describe how we found partners to support Uvalde County with eclipse resources.

Published onMar 21, 2024
Finding Partners Through Connections: Supporting Uvalde County with Solar Eclipse Resources


We describe how we collaborated to support solar eclipse events for the October 2023 eclipse in Uvalde, Texas. Resources included Sunspotters and an eclipse viewing canopy that were used to help community members safely experience the eclipse.

1. Introduction

As an avid eclipse chaser based in New Mexico, I spent considerable time scouting potential viewing locations within the path of totality for the 2024 total solar eclipse. One of the regions I visited in May 2022 was Uvalde, Texas. The community was an ideal base camp with many potential viewing locations close to the center of totality, offering beautiful views and excellent weather prospects. Unfortunately, two days after my exploration in and around the region, the Robb Elementary School shooting occurred, leaving 21 dead and shocking the world. This event had a profound and personal impact on me. Despite the tragedy, a persistent desire to contribute to the community remained, and that opportunity presented itself at the American Astronomical Society’s Solar Eclipse Planning Workshop in Albuquerque.

2. Asterion Foundation Supporting the Eclipses

One of my roles is president of the Asterion Foundation. Asterion established a special fund dedicated to providing solar eclipse materials to not-for-profits along and near the upcoming annular and total solar eclipse paths. In addition to an array of dedicated solar telescopes, solar filters, shades, and other familiar equipment, Asterion funded the distribution of 25 Science First Sunspotter Solar Telescopes across Florida, New Mexico, and Texas.

As a foundation, we were drawn to the opportunity to support Uvalde, a community facing distinct challenges, not only related to the tragedy of 2022. Uvalde County is characterized by underrepresented minority groups (78% Hispanic or Latino) and a substantial portion of families are economically disadvantaged (20-30% living below the poverty line, exceeding both Texas and U.S. averages by 80-110%). Additionally, a gender pay gap persists, with the female population earning only 60 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.

Communities in Texas within the eclipse crossroads of the Annular Solar Eclipse in October 2023 and the Total Solar Eclipse in April 2024 face additional challenges and opportunities. Uvalde County was one of these eclipse crossroad communities, and we were eager to provide resources with a genuine desire to make a positive impact on their experience, as well as that of their visitors for both of the eclipses.

Knowing the school district was restructured in the aftermath of the tragedy, we were unsure of how best to approach the community to help support eclipse planning efforts. We were looking to identify individuals who could ensure any donated eclipse resources could be allocated effectively and used to benefit the community for both eclipses and beyond.

3. Networking at the AAS Eclipse Planning Workshops

The Solar Eclipse Task Force (SETF) has been facilitating Eclipse Planning Workshops over the past few years in preparation for the two solar eclipses. The June 2023 meeting was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and hosted by the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, where I also happen to be a volunteer.

At this meeting, I met Kate Russo, founder of Being in the Shadow, member of the SETF, and author of the White Papers on Community Eclipse Planning. I learned that key tourism officials in Uvalde County had approached Kate in late 2022 for guidance. After extensive engagement, Kate developed a detailed Uvalde County Eclipse Strategy and Implementation Plan for both eclipses, concluding her involvement in April 2023.

Kate had invited Erica Sagebiel and Hailey Hart of Visit Uvalde County to the AAS Eclipse Planning meeting in Albuquerque. Discovering limited progress and ongoing challenges in Uvalde County, Kate offered to change her plans for viewing the annular eclipse in New Mexico and instead re-engage with Uvalde County as Partnership Coordinator to give support for Uvalde County and expedite annular solar eclipse preparations. Given her previous involvement, Kate was able to act quickly to identify short-term solutions. For the remainder of the eclipse planning meeting in Albuquerque, Kate introduced Erica and Hailey to as many people as possible who could offer support. I was then able to learn more about the specific needs and challenges of eclipse preparations in Uvalde County.

Also presenting at the Albuquerque meeting was Derrek Pitts, Director of the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, who spoke again about his creative solar eclipse viewing canopies which he put together for the 2017 eclipse. This inspired me to learn more.

4. Reaching Out and Linking In

Immediately following the Albuquerque meeting, Kate traveled to Uvalde County and met with Kelby Bridwell, Park Superintendent at Garner State Park, which paved the way for the ‘Solar Eclipse Village’, a weekend in October dedicated to the two eclipses. Kate began mobilizing her extensive eclipse and astronomy networks, who offered their time and resources to contribute to this signature event in Uvalde County.

Kate also facilitated connections between these STEM partners and Dr. Jennifer Miller-Rey, Sul Ross University, which has campuses in Uvalde, Eagle Pass, and Alpine. Jennifer coordinated the mobile STEM van, ‘en la frontera’; broadening its service to residents across a wide area of remote Texas, including up to the border and Eagle Pass, also located within the path of totality for 2024. Jennifer was also coordinating a program of eclipse awareness and STEM, as well as a private eclipse viewing event for the Uvalde Community including families affected by the Robb Elementary tragedy.

4.1 Eclipse Resources: Viewing Canopies, Sunspotters and Outreach Efforts

Plans for the Solar Eclipse Village event in Garner State Park came together rapidly. Sunspotters (Figure 1), which allow multiple attendees to view a projected and magnified image of the Sun simultaneously (Figure 2), were on the wish list of resources sought out for different events across the region. The aim was not only to resource the Solar Eclipse Village event in Garner State Park, but also to share and facilitate STEM engagement across the region.

Sunspotter (small wooden structure with a lens to project the Sun) on a table with people in the background
Figure 1

Set up of a Sunspotter as a way to project the Sun safely

Image of projected crescent Sun on a white piece of paper.
Figure 2

Sunspotters allow large crowds to easily observe the progression of the eclipse, along with Sun spots.

Kate and Kelby were keen to provide eclipse viewing canopies, and to invest time in exploring different build prototypes. Drawing on his experience as a former cave tour guide, Kelby recognized that certain experiences can evoke fear. Some fears, like claustrophobia, may be obvious to many, while others, such as using ‘blacked-out’ glasses, might catch people off guard. Kelby was motivated to minimize anxieties during the eclipse by providing more enjoyable safe solar viewing options.

On behalf of the Asterion Foundation, I reached out to discuss these options with Kate and Kelby. After submitting a fast-track application to the Asterion Foundation, Friends of Garner (State Park) received the maximum grant of $5,000, allowing for opportunities to explore eclipse canopy prototypes, along with three Sunspotter solar projection telescopes. Rainbow Symphony also gave practical guidance and donated solar film to build the prototypes.

In due course, many additional partners provided their time and resources, including extensive support from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and also from Mitzi Adams, from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. These teams brought in additional Sunspotters, telescopes, weather stations, and other resources for outreach activities.

4.2 Application of Donations During the Annular Solar Eclipse

Operating under restrictive budget and time constraints, Kelby and his volunteers created several canopy prototypes made from temporary structures, although none were entirely satisfactory. For the annular eclipse day, a singular carport-type structure was used that was more robust than earlier prototypes (Figure 3 and Figure 4). While not perfect, it did afford several hundred people an opportunity to test it out. With user feedback, the eclipse canopy concept will be further refined and enhanced for the total solar eclipse.

Two people smiling at the camera and looking down under a structure.
Figure 3

Kate Russo, Being in the Shadow and Kelby Bridwell, Garner State Park Superintendent doing final checks of the eclipse viewing canopy at the Solar Eclipse Village in Garner State Park. © Kate Russo.

Crowd looking up under a canopy
Figure 4

Large crowds gathering under the eclipse viewing canopy with a mylar panel, allowing for safe viewing. © Kate Russo

The three donated Sunspotters were shared across Uvalde County on eclipse day. At the Solar Eclipse Village in Garner State Park, the donated Sunspotter was managed by Jacob Gonzalez and other Park Rangers (Figure 5), with guidance from NASA researchers and UTSA graduate students who had provided two additional Sunspotters. These proved very popular with the crowd of around 1,200. Kickapoo Caverns State Park, situated between Uvalde and Kinney counties, received the second contributed Sunspotter for the annular eclipse, facilitated by James McLean, an eclipse-chasing former park ranger, along with Katie Rainey, field interpretation coordinator from Texas State Parks (Figure 6). Despite drawing a smaller crowd of 150 visitors, the Sunspotter was among the very few resources available and, consequently, was all the more appreciated.

Park ranger behind a Sunspotter on the ground
Figure 5

Ranger Jacob at Garner State Park preparing one of the donated Sunspotters for the Solar Eclipse Village © Nicholas Sanchez, Texas Parks and Wildlife Outreach

Group of people looking up with solar safety glasses on next to a table with a Sunspotter on it.
Figure 6

One of the donated Sunspotters in use at Kickapoo National Park.  © Katie Rainey, Texas Parks and Wildlife

The final Sunspotter was used at the Sul Ross University community event arranged by Dr. Jennifer Miller-Rey, under the guidance of the National Solar Observatory team, and much appreciated by the students and families of Uvalde County.

The Solar Eclipse Village event followed the annular solar eclipse with another whole day dedicated to the total solar eclipse visible across Uvalde County. Sul Ross University staff shared their knowledge, expertise, along with showcasing the mobile STEM van. At this event, the third donated Sunspotter was formally donated by Friends of Garner to Jennifer at Sul Ross University, for permanent use as part of the en la frontera STEM van (Figure 7 and Figure 8).   

Three people standing at a table pointing and smiling at a sun spotter on the table.
Figure 7

Kelby Bridwell, Garner State Park Superintendent;  Kate Russo, Being in the Shadow;  Jennifer Miller Rey, Sul Ross University.  Donating the Asterion Foundation Sunspotter to Jennifer for the La Frontera Mobile STEM van. © Kate Russo

Six adults posing in front of a van and smiling.
Figure 8

Jennifer Miller Rey and Kate Russo with the La Frontera Mobile Stem Van, showcasing the wide variety of outreach activities that reaches disperse populations across West Texas

All donated resources will be used again for the total solar eclipse in April 2024, and will continue to be used in ongoing educational programs within the community (Figure 9).

A young girl with an adult woman smiling at the camera with a Sunspotter on the table behind them.
Figure 9

In November 2023, the La Frontera Mobile STEM van catches the sun with Uvalde Girl Scout troop.  © Jennifer Miller Rey, Sul Ross University.

5. Conclusions

It might go without saying that much of Asterion’s grant award process is based on need, but it should not be omitted that we invest in people as well. After all, if we merely flooded the region without a hands-on presence, the resources would likely retire in a broom closet. All of these resources will be used again for the upcoming total solar eclipse, as well as be employed well beyond. It cannot be overstated: all of these materials are akin to toys without the help of interpreters, amateur and professional alike. We suspect that, like us, many would have gladly exchanged a telescope or two for a few more able volunteers.


We wish to thank everyone mentioned in the article for their contributions.

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