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Light in the darkness: Lombard nonprofit hopes to send LED lanterns to typhoon-ravaged Philippines

A Filipino woman sews by the glow of a solar-powered LED lantern given to her by the Lombard-based Watts of Love organization, on the island of Ilan earlier this year.
A Filipino woman sews by the glow of a solar-powered LED lantern given to her by the Lombard-based Watts of Love organization, on the island of Ilan earlier this year.

LOMBARD – What began as humanitarian work has rapidly shifted into an emergency disaster relief effort for a local nonprofit organization with ties to storm-ravaged islands in the Philippines.

Lombard-based Watts of Love is currently raising money to send its solar-powered LED lanterns to areas hardest hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan, which caused catastrophic damage when it tore through central parts of the island nation last week.

The goal is to get 10,000 lanterns there as quickly as possible to aid in the rescue and recovery efforts, Nancy Economou, founder of Watts of Love, said Tuesday morning.

“We’re grassroots, but we feel like this is what we do, this is what we know and we can help,” Economou said.

Nancy and her husband, John, started Watts of Love earlier this year, focused on the goal of enriching the lives of people living without electricity. A previous trip to the Philippines had provided the motivation to make a difference for the Downers Grove residents.

“I was completely moved by the lack of electricity and I thought, ‘How do you raise children in the dark?’” Economou said.

Roughly 2 billion people in developing countries lack adequate energy resources, according to the World Energy Council.

Drawing knowledge and resources from John Economou’s Downers Grove business, Aureole Lighting, the couple worked to design a durable, battery-free lighting product. The lanterns are powered through an attached 4x4-inch solar panel. They feature four power settings and also have a built-in USB port with three common adapters to charge electronic devices.

On their first delivery trip in February, the Economou’s delivered 1,000 lanterns to families on the remote Philippine island of Ilan. Once residents understood the function and benefit of the electronic devices, they began to thrive, Economou said.

The solar lights provided residents an opportunity to earn additional income by making bamboo skewers and other goods at night, and also allowed them to start micro-businesses to charge neighbors’ cell phones.

From a health standpoint, the lanterns were just as beneficial, Economou said, replacing highly flammable and toxic kerosene-fueled lights that were commonly used among village residents.

Income saved from no longer having to purchase kerosene, as well as additional income made from selling their newly made goods, was being put toward purchasing food for the often malnourished residents.

“Light is the quickest way to get out of poverty,” Economou said.

Watts of Love has also been working with people in Haiti and Mozambique, but currently, the focus is on areas hit hardest by the recent typhoon.

“The light and the charging function are both very critical for disaster relief,” John Economou said. “It will allow them to work through the night to rebuild and get back on their feet.”

Already verified as one of the strongest storms in recorded history, Haiyan is estimated to have been responsible for roughly 10,000 deaths in one coastal town alone. As authorities continue to move into rural villages, the death toll is expected to rise even higher.

“My heart is Filipino, that’s really how I feel,” Economou said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first place we helped is in such need now.”

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