Watts of Love: Local group bringing light to typhoon-ravaged Philippines

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It’s been almost six weeks since Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippine Islands.  For those who survived, restoring electricity and rebuilding will take years.  But, as Steve Sanders reports, there’s a Chicago area group bringing light to one of the darkest places on earth.

“I’m handing out these lights and telling the stories of how it helps people.” Kevin Kuster’s calling to the Philippines comes by way of Playboy Magazine.  He was a senior photo editor there for almost two decades.  “We believe that every light has a story, and every family tells a story once they receive that light.” …like this fisherman. “My name is Fernando. I’m 41 years old and very handsome.”  “There was one gentleman in particular, Fernando,” says Kevin. “And Fernando just couldn’t have been nicer to me.”

Kevin met Fernando on a good fishing day.  He had caught four conch shells to feed his wife and four children.

Yet, this man who had no home, offered the food to Kevin.  His generosity was rewarded with a light from “Watts of Love.”  …”because I knew someone who had a heart like that would take the light and share it with his family, with his friends and would use it to help other people- not just himself.  Tell Fernando he’s got a new job.  He’s gonna have to hold the light while she cooks. When the sun goes down they live in complete darkness.”

Kevin’s sister, Nancy Economou, discovered the need for light in the Philippines five years ago.

She had met a burn victim, a little girl, whose face had been badly burned when a kerosene lamp, used for light, caught her house on fire.

Nancy knew she just had to do something. “I don’t know how to run a not-for-profit.  I know nothing about solar light. (LAUGHS)  …perfectly qualified.”

Though it took a couple of years, Nancy and her husband John, designed a portable, solar powered light, with a long lasting battery.  And this past February, started giving them away through the non-profit they founded called, “Watts of Love.”  “This is the unit itself,” says co-founder John Economou who shows us one of the lights.

It has had several re-designs and now includes a lightweight backpack with a built in solar panel.  And a USB port has been added with cellphone adapters so people can charge their cellphones and communicate with the outside world. So why do people with so little have cellphones?  “The cellphone companies give these people cellphones cause they know they’ll buy minutes,” says John.  “Watts of Love” began partnering with non-government organizations in the Philippines to identify families in need. “They basically get a light source that helps on their income,” says John. ”They also receive the opportunity to charge cell phones for a fee, which provides another way for a microbusiness or additional income. It’s really a life changer.” Nancy adds,  “Light is the fastest way to get a family out of poverty because it affects everything.”

The Economous saw almost immediate results.  Families with lights save money on kerosene.  And their children’s coughs are going away without those toxic fumes.

Light is also speeding up the rebuilding process.  School kids can keep studying after sundown.  And, medical facilities can stay open longer to serve the long lines of families with health concerns.

Their mission became more urgent after the typhoon.  But, while other disaster relief organizations are delivering food, clean water, and shelter, Nancy syas “Watts of Love” remains focused on light. “We’re committed to bringing 10,000 lights.”

Just this month, Nancy recruited brother Kevin to get onto remote islands over Thanksgiving to hand out lights and use his many years of professional photography to tell the stories of what a real difference light can make to families.  “When an entire island is completely devastated and no one has electricity, there was the poor and the super poor and the really really really poor. Everyone needed one. I can’t give it to the wrong person.”

One woman saved her children by climbing into a clay water jar during the typhoon.  She got a light.  Kevin got a great story.  And he says he came back a changed man. “You just realize how lucky we are, you know?  Even though they lost everything, I encountered so much joy, you know? Ya.  .  (SEE HIM WIPE A TEAR)   So  it was very special.”

It costs $35 to $40 to provide a light for a family in need.  If you’d like to help Watts of Love, go to our website at wgntv.com.


Producer Pam Grimes, Photojournalist Steve Scheuer, and Editor Vicki Thomas contributed to this report.


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