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Downers Grove charity lets there be light

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013 1:56 p.m. CST • Updated: Friday, July 25, 2014 4:45 a.m. CST

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DOWNERS GROVE — It was a couple years after their trip to Philippines that John and Nancy Economou came up with their bright idea.

After visiting missionaries working in one of that country's poorest regions — which lacked electricity and running water and where night-time light was provided by dim kerosene lamps — the Downers Grove couple set out to deliver light to those who needed it.

Out of that kernel grew Watts of Love, a charity founded last year with the mission to deliver solar-powered lights to those around the world without electricity.

The Economou's efforts paid off this month with a trip back to the Philippines, when they delivered 1,000 of the solar-powered lights to the Filipino island.

"The response was enormous. After everything you always hear about the poor, but to go and see it," Nancy Economou said. "I just thought about our five young boys."

Wherever the lights are delivered, Watts of Love will work with a local nongovernmental organization — both to ensure the lights go to the right people and to follow up afterward, John Economou said.

In the case of the Philippines, the missionaries plan to report how the lights affect students' grades in the area.

"We can gauge the impact these things have," he said.

Watts of Love is already planning another trip — Mozambique sometime in between July and December. They'd like to at least match and possibly double their 1,000-light contribution.

In that time, they'd also like to make it a self-sustaining nonprofit. (They've filed an application for a 501-(c)(3) status.)

The idea is to wed the nonprofit with the services provided by John Economou's business, Aureole LED, which installs LED and energy-efficient lighting for new construction and renovations.

Retrofitting corporate buildings with LED lights provides energy savings, John Economou said. The Economous hope to entice some businesses to donate a portion of those savings to the charity.

The lights are relatively inexpensive. The lights on the first trip this month were finances by several private donors.

They retail for about $43, but the cost $20 for the charity. By sharing office space with Aureole LED in Lombard, just north of Butterfield Road, they can keep their overhead and administrative costs low.

"Everyone gets something," Nancy Economou said. "They get their retrofit, they get their savings."

The solar-power light has four settings. The lowest, which was still brighter than a kerosene lamp, can run for 100 hours without a sunlight charge. The other, brighter settings can run for 24, 12 and eight hours. The brightest setting delivers the equivalent to a 4- watt bulb.

The light also includes an adapter for a cell phone charger, which can be as crucial.

In many parts of the developing world — where 21st century digitization is taking off without as much 20th century infrastructure — cell phones do more than just handle calls. According to a World Bank report published in July, they are also used by individuals for financial transactions and business developments and by governments to deliver services.

In the Philippines, the business aspect was a big part of the solar lights' impact, she said.

Nancy Economou recalled one mother who found nothing to do after the sun went down but to wait for bedtime. With the solar light, however, she could put a couple hours into her cottage industry — widdling down bamboo sticks, which she could then sell at market. After returning the next day, Nancy Economou recalled, she widdled dozens of the skewers.

"They doubled their family income in 12 hours," she said. "It's exciting, we really saw the direct impact. Sitting here in Downers Grove, we can only think about all the implications, how it can be used."

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