I have an active adventure and travel gene. My heart pounds and my adrenaline surges when planning a trip. I rarely concern myself with minutiae, instead I trust that everything will work out for the best with any potential conflicts of timing, weather, meet ups, or any other non-vital detail. But when Watts of Love suggested I join them on their light distribution trip to the Philippines last February, my stomach turned inside out and my nerves were decidedly in charge.
As a writer for WOL, I’ve heard several of their travel experiences and have had hundreds of my questions answered. One would think I would have no unknowns left. But there were countless factors that led the raging battle of nerves versus my norm. To my surprise, my lack of real information was the largest — the details. In my interviewing, I had never asked anyone if they needed malaria shots or if they packed waterproof makeup. The Philippines had never even been on my radar as a destination and I soon realized that my fire for adventure only burns when fueled by knowledge (something which comforts my much more cautious husband).
After my first conversations with Christie Dunne, WOL’s Global Travel Team Coordinator, and after WOL’s team call, my essential information arsenal loaded itself and the adventure adrenaline resumed its surge. WOL’s deep knowledge and experience allowed me to release any worries. They provided the travel team with a comprehensive packing list, as well as a detailed itinerary, then also answered our loose-end-questions. I could prepare my brain for departure once I ticked all the items off this long list.
Once nerves were, indeed, in check, my sights were on the journey itself, and I settled into why I was going to the Philippines with Watts of Love: focusing out, giving back and being in the experience that I so often have written about for them. I was very open to what this journey would look like. No matter how it all played out, I knew one thing for certain: I would return better than I left.
For the previous bunch of years especially, I had had a genuine appreciation for my blessings and for my minimal life obstacles. Even so, it's challenging for people not to be caught up in the details of their lives. We are all guilty of making the unimportant seem vital, the insignificant obstacle seem insurmountable. In daily life, my broken kitchen cabinets or my teen daughter’s untidy room created an illusion of gravity.
When departure day arrived, a blizzard charging toward the northeast US forced me to alter my flight plans and travel without the rest of the team. It was a slight mental setback, but my preparation was my ally and spending 24 hours traveling alone was one of those faux gravity moments I was ready to move beyond. Arriving in the Philippines a day ahead of my team, made it so I comically didn’t meet my roommate, Audrey Elisha (now a WOL Board Member) until I awoke in my hotel room and she was in the next bed. The trip had already set itself up to be unlike any other. It’s hard not to befriend someone immediately who introduced herself to me with a similar pajama-wearing, groggy, “Mornin'!” The remainder of the team was introduced to me over breakfast and were each interesting, outgoing and noticeably kind. The dynamic within the group vibrated with enthusiasm. It was infectious. Everyone was there to make a difference. Many had traveled before with WOL -- some several times, some once or twice. I was one of only six in the team of eighteen people who was on her maiden voyage.
Later that night, we reconvened for our first official team meeting and training over dinner. Team leaders, like Nancy Economou, WOL’s co-founder and CEO, Christie, and Kevin Kuster, founding member and Creative Director (who would be shooting a marketing video over the course of our nine days together), spoke to us on some anticipated items, like how to respectfully represent WOL, as well as how to teach recipients how to care for their lights. They also pointed out unanticipated items, which were a cultural wake up. Aside from how we should introduce ourselves, there would be a more basic element that we in developed nations take for granted. The simple concept of pushing a button or plugging something in, let alone associating it with a reaction of any kind, is in the framework of what needs to be taught before handing a solar light to its owner. We were instructed that, in most cases, we would actually have to take someone's finger and press the button or push in the cord with them, because they wouldn’t even understand the tactile requirement. This last piece of information was my moment of reality. I remember thinking, “This is real.”
The following day, a Mangyan woman stood with the portable microphone we brought with us to her village and was so overcome by emotion that she had to pass it to another villager before she could take her turn to speak. We were gathered in a small pavilion of a remote town amidst dried farm fields and tiny shacks, mixed together with the villagers and their many children. Through our Filipino team member and translator, Ruth Keijdener, they were sharing their stories of how WOL solar lights had changed their lives.
The emotional, diminutive woman tried several times to speak before Candice Mishkin, a Watts of Love Board Member, also an expert in emotional crisis relief, walked over to embrace the woman. She held and soothed her for at least fifteen minutes before the woman was able to compose herself. Candice’s unconditional giving of love moved me. She doesn't speak the local Tagalog and the woman she comforted doesn't speak English. What they both speak is love and they speak it genuinely, vulnerably and unconditionally.
Later, we drove with our military escort (who was there more to help us than to protect us) back through the dried river beds and trails to a small, white-washed, blue-roofed church. The Bishop had flown in with us to say Mass for our team, which was a testament to the work WOL has done in the five years they have been going to the Philippines.
Not everyone on our team is Catholic, of course, but everyone was honored to share the rich and strong faith of these beautiful people. As we listened to the villagers sing their hymns in Tagalog and as we spoke our prayers in English, I was overcome by something I had always known intellectually, but hadn't yet experienced emotionally. I had been to Masses spoken in other languages in foreign places, but in that moment, in that place, with those people, in a combination of their language and ours, with their children sitting on our laps, I realized on a much deeper level that faith is Universal.
The gift of any faith, shared together, speaking the most important language -- the Universal language of love -- was more powerful than any emotional light delivery or any UN peace treaty or anything in between. We can all take a lesson from Candice with her genuine, unconditional love. That's a language in which we could all use more fluency.
A couple days later, we started our second light distribution with literal sunshine and roses. The sun was bright and the kind of hot one would expect in southeast Asia. The sky was a shade and vibrancy that I've only seen before through the filter of sunglasses. When we arrived at the school to distribute, the interpreters and teachers, who were helping us train and organize the local Mangyan recipients, handed each of us an artificial rose for Valentine's Day. Even better, the children of the village smiled and hugged us as they delivered handmade Valentine's Day cards.
Each light distribution begins with a group introduction of the team to recipients, as well as a presentation of the lights and a basic training before the one-on-one sessions. That morning, the presentations were performed under the shade of a massive mango tree and the one-on-one trainings were carried out in a fairly well-ventilated classroom. Building upon the already idyllic experience in the rising action of the day, the second of our four distributions was thirty minutes away at a church in the center of a tiny shack village named “Sulong-Ipil Happy Dream Church”. Is there a better name for a church when the day has begun so perfectly?
From my first interview with Nancy in September of 2015, it was evident that her strength is in her innate understand of the human condition and our basic needs to thrive. She is a force in the best sense and very little will keep her from distributing lights to the people whom she defends and believes in with her whole being. When our third light distribution turned out to be a situation where we'd have to walk the team and the lights across a large rice patty field and into the unknown jungle for an undetermined distance, she wasn’t deterred in the least. She was decisive. “Have them come to us. We still have another distribution to do before the end of the day. We'll do the training and distribution right here on the side of the road.” And we did.
The Mangyans from the surrounding remote areas filtered in through the expansive rice patties and up to the very dusty dirt path that Nancy called a road. The people settled under yet another protective mango tree and the WOL Team lined up on the road facing them and began a makeshift presentation and training with the help of our volunteer Filipino interpreters.
My role on this trip was as photographer. However, at our first distribution, I also trained recipients so that I would understand the experience on a personal one-on-one level. Because of this, I had the immense blessing of witnessing this pastoral scene from a different perspective than everyone else. As the training unfolded, I knew the photos would tell the story. I balanced on the edges of a pickup truck’s tail gate, to capture the entire scene and witness my team in action. It was awe-inspiring.
No photo has the ability to tell that story, with its scope of controlled chaos and human-to-human connections present in that scene, but I took at least fifty anyway. As I observed my team kneeling in the tall grasses alongside the dusty road, next to the humble indigenous people, I absorbed the smiles, the sign language when interpreters were unavailable, the oppressive heat and humidity, the laughter of discovery and camaraderie, the veil of red-brown dust that settled onto sweaty exposed skin, the joy of hope, the focus of learning, the efficiency of makeshift teaching, the determination. Best of all, the results: new solar light owners who now have the tools to emancipate themselves out of poverty … and the elation radiating from them.
However, as amazing as that third distribution was, it was the fourth one that elevated the day into memory. Our caravan of vans and pickup trucks drove to the end of a long dirt road through exquisite countryside full of panoramas of distant volcanic mountains framed by dense, abundant rice patties and clear rivers. Next, we walked through a short sandy path of dune grasses to a river that during the wet season is likely treacherous and deep, but which was now thigh high and flowing lyrically over a bed full of large, round stones. The locals who had been helping us with gear crossed first, carrying on their heads the heavy boxes that were packed with lights and the basic necessities for a distribution and training. The rest of us followed, crossing through the rejuvenating, clear, cool water, laughing and smiling and soaking up these remarkable moments of our combined adventure. I water-jogged beside everyone, taking photos and rebuffing half-jokes of the possibilities of toppling into the river with my gear. But that would never happen on such a day. It was an appropriate entrée to the perfect ending of this day.
We climbed up the river bank and onto a verdant green plateau, where an isolated, indigenous and timid people were waiting for us. They seemed unsure of what was descending upon them, but once our leaders introduced themselves and began presenting, grins and giggles released themselves from our wary recipients. It was magical. The remainder of the distribution unfolded as if inspired by Seurat's "La Grande Jatte." Instead of leisure and luxury, however, this was about life necessities.
Later, as we descended back to the river, we were content, understanding that the families whom we had just served were bringing lights back to their huts and, for the first time ever after sunset, would have light in their village.
Over dinner with the team on our final night in the Philippines, we each shared some of our reflections on the week, which eventually turned into an eighteen person round table discussion on thoughts moving forward for Watts of Love and their mission. During our journey, I had the chance to connect with each and every extraordinary person on this team. In their lives, they are all leaders in some capacity and I admire them individually and as a powerhouse unit. With a group like that and on a mission like this, you can imagine how inspiring a round table discussion would be.
In the eight days of immersion on the islands of the Philippines, the one thing I noticed about the people who had not previously received lights is that they have all been simply surviving. They have nothing but a modest roof over their heads, each other, and often barely enough to feed themselves, sometimes not enough. They don't know what it's like to wish for something more, because they often don't know that there is more to life than being hungry, being sick, living in darkness, and often living in fear of what or who will come and prey on them at night.
One thought that was consistent while I interacted with people (especially the children) was, “What are their talents and gifts?” We each have natural talents and gifts that, in our world of opportunity, are channeled into schooling and careers when we're young. We have a myriad of choices of how to use these gifts and, if there is no job that already exists that is perfect for us, we have luxury to create one.
Our world is all about opportunity. Theirs is not.
As I walked through villages, I often thought, “I wonder if this person has a gift for science ... or this one is the storyteller of the community … a mathematician ... a teacher ... an artist.” What would they be if they had the chance to dream outside of the parameters of their current circumstances?
When Nancy was explaining to me about people raising themselves up out of poverty, she told me, “I don't want them to leave and be in our world. I want them to do well where they are.” I understood then that I don't need these people to raise themselves up and have my life. How arrogant we are when this is what we believe people need or even want. They get to use their gifts where they are and to thrive in their world. And they get to help their neighbors to do the same.
One evening, we returned on the banka boat from an extended, scorching and exhausting day and were just in time for an equatorial sunset that lit the sky ablaze. I don't have the chance to see sunsets very often where I live, so I was eager to photograph this rarity in my life. I wandered off into the cerulean water, which was shallow enough at low tide to reach out at least 100 yards and still be only knee deep. I shot silhouettes of the moored banka boats against the reflecting rubescent sky that was increasing exponentially in saturation and intensity. Soon, a ensemble of young boys had gravitated toward me to watch me work. I started to use sign language to ask them to pose with a head lamp for me, but one very bright boy started translating. He astonished me with how fluent he was in english at only ten years old. After finishing, we waded back to shore as I talked with Lawrence, my little translator and new friend. I praised him for his kindness and intelligence and his willingness to help me. I said, "Lawrence, you're so smart. I believe you can be anything you want to be. What do you want to be when you grow up?" "Police," he said shyly. I teared up when I heard his answer. He had been been thriving in part because of Watts of Love, who had been returning to his village on Ilin Island and delivering solar lights for five years. Because of that, he dreams beyond what he would have been able to five years ago.
I was meant to be there with Lawrence in that moment, just him and me. The next two times I saw him, I hugged and kissed the top of his head and bragged to my team about how special he is.
My biggest learning from Nancy and her vision — and the reality she has created — is what works isn't “fixing” people in hardship. They're not broken. Nor is it about hand outs. It's about giving them a hand up and empowering them to use a one-time opportunity to have a vision and dream. In this case, the hand up is some basic knowledge and a solar light to literally and figuratively see those dreams.
When I began this adventure, I knew that I would experience a refreshing and sizable shift in perspective, witnessing true joy on the face of a human being who has lived without electricity for their entire life and who has received the gift of free, safe, solar light. Combine that experience with the bonding that was created with an exceptional team of people who were on a journey of giving together, as well as the occasion to have seen a remote part of the world and spend time with its indigenous people, and the adventure becomes more of a pinnacle life voyage.
It was clear that we had received a precious gift on this journey.