Community activist takes passion to solar industry

You might not immediately recognize the name Louise Helton. But odds are if you are a Southern Nevada resident, the founder of 1 Sun Solar Cos. has had some effect on your life.

The community activist — and now solar entrepreneur — successfully spearheaded the movement to keep fluoride in tap water.

And those buses painted like cows? That was another of Louise Helton’s ideas. Officially called Classrooms on Wheels, the cow-themed bus brings kindergarten to disadvantaged children.

And Centennial license plates for Nevada’s 100th birthday in 2005 was another brainchild of Louise Helton.

The Albuquerque-born Helton moved around a lot as a child. She later moved to Las Vegas from Denver in 1983, taking a transfer from her then-employer, Kelly Services.

Helton was known as a specialist in turning around troubled offices. However, she wanted to raise her son and daughter full time, and left the company in 1988.

She said working with her own children’s schools opened her eyes to the plight of other children.

She helped start Communities In Schools, which helps at-risk students succeed in school and prepares them for life by offering counseling and essentials, such as school supplies, food and free health care.

Helton, who served as the group’s state director from 2003 to earlier this year, said she can’t name just one accomplishment as her crowning achievement.

“You know, it is really like asking, ‘What child is your favorite?’ ” she said. “Fluoridation was very important, because we were the last city of our size not to have fluoride in the water.”

Helton and her boyfriend and business partner, Rich Gurrola, founded the solar panel installation firm 1 Sun Solar in 2007, after being inspired by a speech by former President Bill Clinton.

Helton, who was named vice president of 1 Sun Solar earlier this year, also was crowned Mrs. Nevada 1994.

Question: How do you feel about doing charitable work?

Answer: You have to have something you are bringing to this life. You can’t just be along for the ride.

Question: What philanthropic or professional achievements are you the most proud of?

Answer: I will always be proud of the Classroom on Wheels programs and all the children that were given a boost in their early years in so many ways. Being recognized by Harvard and the Ford Foundation for that work was very amazing to me.

Question: What inspired you to advocate for children’s causes?

Answer: I had two children of my own and they say once you have a child you grow another heart. I became very sensitive to children and developed a strong sense of responsibility for their well-being. Not just for my own children but all children. When my daughter was in first grade I was able to quit my job and stay home, which allowed me to volunteer in her classroom. That is where I got my “education” in learning what an unlevel playing field children from low-income families have to try to raise their children on. It seemed totally unfair and intolerable, so I just looked for ways to make a difference.

Question: How did you come up with your Centennial license plate idea?

Answer: I was in Leadership Las Vegas in 2001, and came up with the idea to create a Centennial license plate during a class. It is the most popular license plate in the state, and it has made over $8 million.

Question: What do you think you are most known for?

Answer: It would probably be my work on behalf of disadvantaged young people.

Question: Did your life change at all after being named Mrs. Nevada?

Answer: I’ll say. My neighbors celebrated by toilet-papering my house. It was a truly amazing 21-roll salute. Seriously, it has been a fun honor to have been given. Of course I am proud to have represented our state in any way. It is always amazing what an impression that title makes on people compared to some of the other things I have done. It’s one of the least expected roles and the one that creates the most curiosity.

Question: Where do you think Southern Nevada stands now, when it comes to solar and other renewable development?

Answer: Thanks to Senator Reid, we have been able to distinguish ourselves as a strong state in the solar industry. He has held the National Clean Energy Summit here and brings world leaders of solar together here in Las Vegas. We need to build on this work with strong involvement of the folks in our own community so we are all on the same page. The people of our valley are excited about solar energy. There is great enthusiasm along with a sense of frustration that more has not been done.

Question: What role do you see 1 Sun Solar playing in the development of renewable energy?

Answer: We want to contribute to the promotion and understanding of how important our solar energy industry can be to our community. The general public has strong positive feelings of support but haven’t had a chance to engage in a meaningful way.

Question: You said some of your relatives didn’t want you to move to Las Vegas.

Answer: I have people in Texas who won’t ever come here. They just wouldn’t approve that I live here … I know everybody here has somebody with that attitude. It gives them an excuse not to get involved in the community.

Question: You call Las Vegas your hometown, in spite of living in so many different cities. Why is that?

Answer: I was driving into Las Vegas in March (1983), when I moved here, and there were palm trees here. It was lovely by Colorado standards. I thought, ‘I am home.’

Contact reporter Valerie Miller at or 702-387-5286.

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