Lombard nonprofit Watts of Love delivers lights to poorest areas of the world
It's been a little more than five years since Nancy Economou went to the Philippines and saw the face of a girl who would change her life.
The preschooler's skin was mutilated by fire, the result of a burn from kerosene lanterns that are still used as the primary source of light in her village.
"The teacher very nonchalantly said, 'Oh yeah, that happens all the time,'" Economou said.
As a mother of five, Economou was sickened. The experience ate at her for the rest of the trip and she quickly realized providing light to people living without electricity was her calling in life.
"We all have different experiences in life and not everyone is called, obviously, to do what I'm doing, but we all have a choice to make," she said. "I could have gone to the Philippines and been like, 'Boy, that really stinks for them, that just has to be horrible.' Or you can go, 'You know what, I can do something.'"
In late 2012, Economou and her husband, John, created Watts of Love, a Lombard-based nonprofit that has since provided thousands of portable solar lanterns and headlamps to people in the poorest parts of the world, including Haiti, Kenya, Uganda, India, Cambodia and a growing number of countries.
"Light is the fastest way out of poverty," Economou said. "It affects your health, your education and your time of productivity. It affects every aspect of a family's life."
'A small investment'
An estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide live without electricity.
According to the United Nations Foundation, more women and children die each year of kerosene-related death than are diagnosed with HIV and TB combined. Burning biofuels in poorly ventilated homes also results in harmful indoor pollution that can cause serious health issues.
The World Bank says access to electricity at home greatly improves education opportunities, too, by allowing people to study after daytime activities. For example, in Nicaragua, 72 percent of children living in a rural household with electricity attend school, compared to 50 percent of those living without it.
Upon learning more about the great need she was fulfilling, Economou left her job in Chicago with high-end jeweler Cartier to pursue Watts of Love full time.
Her organization's mission, she said, is to seek the people who are completely lost or neglected, the "voiceless" people who are not heard because they live in such remote areas.
"That's challenging," she said. "We have to climb mountains, we might take a motorcycle or bunka boat, but the impact is so significant and instantaneous."
It costs about $50 to manufacture and ship a lantern, which weighs less than two pounds and lasts about two years. Plans are in the works to develop more waterproof lanterns that could last up to eight years.
"There's not many things you can give a needy family that will help for two years," Economou said. "Shoes wear out. They're hungry in six hours. Now, with a light, they can feed themselves, they can educate themselves, they have another six hours of productivity, there's no more eye strain, their cough goes away because they're not inhaling kerosene."
John said the lights are "a small investment" considering how they help not only one individual, but usually a family of five to seven people.
"It's just amazing how they use it and how it affects their daily life," he said. "Everybody who receives the light actually uses it in a slightly different way."
That includes hanging the lantern on a long bamboo pole to illuminate a crowd of people who work late into the night to shuck seafood, and using it to attract more fish when fishing.
"We never knew any of this," John said. "It's just amazing the ways that they're utilizing the light. We're very encouraged."
More than a light
In February 2013, Economou went on the organization's first light delivery mission, to Ilin Island in the Philippines. The island has no roads, no doctor, no running water, no infrastructure and, of course, no electricity.
"There are 30,000 people living there," she said. "I was like, 'How do you deliver a baby here?' and they're like, 'Your hands and a candle!' It's that primitive."
That resulted in the design of the organization's solar headlamps, which are distributed primarily to midwives.
Despite the lack of development, many of the island's residents have cellphones.
"People in the U.S. are like, OK, they're poor, remote, no electricity, no running water, but they have a cellphone? And, yes, no matter where you go in the world everyone has a cellphone. But it's not like what we have," Economou said.
"It's very inexpensive -- usually phone companies will give them out for free or very cheap. You don't pay a monthly fee, you just buy a load," she said. "It's extremely important to them. And they will forgo eating, I mean as crazy as it is, to have access to communication."
So, Economou added a USB port on new lanterns to allow for phone charging.
When she visited the island again a few years later, Economou discovered another problem: The residents were carrying the light around with them all day in the box it was packaged in.
"I thought, oh my gosh, they don't have a bag. Like you solve one problem, but then you create another," Economou said.
To address the issue, she designed a small backpack that holds the 4-inch solar panel on the outside and allows the cord to go through to the inside, where it plugs into the light. There's also an oversized pocket inside that Economou calls the Watts of Love bank.
"We tell them, 'Every day, you pretend you're buying kerosene. You put your pesos in here,'" she said. "Now, when they go out farming and fishing, their light and money goes with them."
Education is an important part of Watts of Love's mission. It starts, Economou said, with teaching the families the most basic of directions, such as pushing in a button.
"The people need to understand that this is a tool," she said. "Obviously it's a light, but it's so much more than that."
Most of the people receiving lights don't know how to write, but Economou said they are required to agree to a contract that says they will no longer buy kerosene.
They are also taught to use the money they'll be saving from not purchasing kerosene or paying to get their phone charged to invest in an animal, like a pig or a cow, every few months.
"We're giving people the ability to raise themselves out of poverty with dignity," Economou said.
Light = love
The first light Economou distributed was to an old widow whose family had abandoned her.
"When we handed her a light she started crying, and she said, 'I cannot accept this from you. I'm too poor to be loved.' She said, 'I have nothing to give you in return.' It was so humbling," Economou said.
"It seems like a very practical gift, but it's the love that they feel," she added. "It's more than just a light, it's really the emotion behind it and it's just the fact that they're seen. Somebody cares. That was really powerful."
John said he was also in awe at the reaction the recipients had upon receiving their lights.
"Most people said, 'Why are you doing this? We're forgotten by our government, we feel unloved' … and for someone not Filipino coming to help them, that was the biggest impact I've ever had," he said. "You get very emotional. Basically, you're loving on them and saying, 'you're worthy, this will help you.'
"That became one of the central, core parts of our mission," he said. "We knew that it wasn't just a handout at that point. Part of our mission was going to be actually going to people and interacting with them, holding their hand."
Anyone traveling to an impoverished area without electricity can work with Watts of Love to get lanterns there before they arrive. The organization will connect the traveler with an established organization near the site and explain how the products should be distributed.
"There's no agenda behind giving our lights," Economou said. "The agenda is, are you in critical need?"
Aside from monetary donations, Economou said it is helpful to receive support in the form of airline tickets or hotel points. She hopes to eventually partner with a family foundation or corporate sponsor who believes in her mission. Until then, she continues to make a grass-roots effort to connect with other nonprofits and local churches and schools that want to help.
"People understand shoes, people understand water, people understand food," she said. "The question is, do you know the fastest way out of poverty? Because we don't. But here's a really simple solution."
How to help• Donate online at wattsoflove.org. $50 will provide a family with a portable solar lantern capable of up to 100 continuous hours of run-time between charges.
• Mail donations to Watts of Love, 784 Oak Creek Drive, Lombard, IL 60148.
• Gather friends and family, organize a peer group or engage a church or business to begin a fundraising campaign.
• Individuals who already have plans to visit impoverished areas where lights are needed can contact Watts of Love to learn more about how they can distribute lanterns while on their trip.
• Buy a lantern or headlamp for yourself; 100 percent of all purchases helps fund Watts of Love's mission.
• Learn more about specific countries Watts of Love is working in and how your gift can help by emailing email@example.com or calling (630) 576-1142.