No matter what we do, what we do matters.
Meet Nancy Economou. While traveling with her husband to the Philippines in 2009, Nancy volunteered her time to help out at a local feeding program. While there, she was struck by the number of children and adults who had severe burns due to kerosene lamps, the only light source in the village. A mother of five, Nancy felt called to do something to help. It was in those moments that Watts of Love was born, now located in Downers Grove, IL. According to Watts of Love, “ 1.1 Billion People in the world live without electricity. That means more people live in darkness today than when the first light bulb was invented.”
G: Tell me about that trip that inspired Watts of Love.
N: I had a house full of babies when my husband asked me to go on that business trip with him. I just felt like I was supposed to go there. While I was there, I wanted to go out and see how the locals were really living. I decided to volunteer my time at a feeding program. While there, I met a young girl who had scars and burns all over her face, and they were putting toothpaste on it. When I asked what they were doing, they explained that kids and adults were getting these terrible burns, and then were back in these situations every night that were causing the trauma. It was then that I learned about how they were living in this village with only these kerosene lamps for lighting. I came home from that trip and just felt called to bring solar lights to people, even though it didn’t make sense to me.
G: Did you know anything about solar lights at the time?
N: Nothing. I had no background in anything like this. These people were living in darkness, and that’s all I knew. The name Watts of Love came to me pretty quickly and I started to tell people about it. I knew I wanted to find the poorest people on the face of the earth. I just decided that if I was going to do this, this was how I wanted to serve.
Around that time, I met a woman, and she was telling me about a company she was starting. When I told her about my dream, she looked at me and said, “You were given that dream for a reason. Don’t give up on it”. From my own personal faith, I truly believe that I will be held accountable for the desires of my heart, and I don’t want to be standing there wondering what would have happened had I not stepped out in faith.
G: How did you get your start? How did people around you react to what you decided to do?
N: The reaction that I got a lot at first was that my idea was strange. It was pretty clear to me that I knew nothing about non-profits and solar lighting. I also had no idea how to find the people that needed them. In 2012, I was living with this idea, and then in July I decided to register the name with the State of Illinois. From there, I just started asking myself what my next step was. It became a process of getting things going and just moving forward.
G: Tell me about that first trip to deliver solar lights?
N: The goal of the first trip was to get back to the Philippines where my heart was changed. I knew of a priest who was living there on an island that was so primitive that people were literally starving to death. The goal was to get 1,000 lights there. I knew nothing about getting lights imported into Manila and then onto a barge to get to this island. Logistically it was almost impossible. When I got to the island, all of my lights were stuck in customs, and I felt like a failure. I had only three lights in my suitcase.
I told the priest to find three of the poorest people that we could give these lights to. So instead of distributing 1,000 lights all at one time, which was my original vision, I had to go to a woman’s house, learn her name, look in her eyes, and give her the light. I got to see how she lived. She had never owned a pair of shoes and the entire back of her house was burned.
The second light I gave out was to a mother of seven kids. When I went to check on her the next day, she told me that after she put her kids to bed, she stayed up and made 1,000 bamboo barbecue sticks. It was then that I realized the value and the ability to produce an income for this woman by having this light. Because I got to listen to these stories, I slowed down enough to process the impact and the financial implications of giving light to these people.
The third light was given to a man and his wife who had no food. When I returned to them on the next trip 30 days later, they reported that they hadn’t gone hungry since getting the light because they didn’t have to pay each day for kerosene.
G: It sounds like it hit you pretty quickly that you were giving these villagers more than just light to see by at night and a safer way to go about their lives when the sun was down. Tell me more about what that was like?
N: When we came home after those first trips, we created a model of education about how the light can impact education, safety, income and sustainability for the recipients. We give them the tool, and then teach them to be empowered themselves.
We did a capstone study with NYU in January on the impacts of Watts of Love in Haiti, and the study showed that the two biggest factors that came out of the light distribution was self-worth and economic freedom. Who would have thought you could create those changes with a solar powered light? You can literally lift a family out of poverty in one generation. The impact is incredible to see. Watts of Love has a global solution for eradicating darkness and changing peoples’ lives. We have given out over 30,000 lights in over 30 countries in five years.
G: How have you processed all of this? Within six years of starting this with a vision, it has grown so much. It is literally changing the fabric of communities.
N: It gives me a sense of urgency. You see how immediately a village can transform, so I am motivated to tell as many people as possible. I have a whole plan for starting to light entire nations.
G: How has the technology evolved since you started out?
N: When we first started distributing the lights, the original light was really good. It has a solar panel and MP3 and radio capability, which means they can hear news of the outside world. Before they were so cut off. Now we can give them information about issues like hurricanes, human trafficking, and information that was never available to them before. The light itself has evolved into something that can go further and farther into the remote areas. I just designed and patented a new one with Molex here in Lisle to cut down on the shipping and packaging costs. We went from twelve lights in a box to over 100 lights in a smaller box. It’s more portable. It’s water-resistant. They can physically wear this new light on their body or on their head and be hands free or it can hang somewhere in their home. It doesn’t seem like it’s a big deal, but it’s a huge deal. It’s a game-changer.
G: I’m blown away by all of the moving parts and pieces, innovation, and learning curve for you. How have you managed all of that along the way? You knew nothing about any of this when this idea hit you.
N: I am willing to be teachable, vulnerable, and make a mistake. And I am willing to ask for help. I also know what I am good at, and then I am getting comfortable with what I am not good at and finding the resources that can help me. I think it’s important to be okay filling in our weaknesses and our gaps with the help of others.
G: You are a Mom of five boys. Watts of Love calls on you to travel all over the world. How do you juggle it all?
N: It comes down to what you have control over and where you place value, and that’s different for everyone. I have been both a stay at home mom, and a working Mom, and everyone has to decide what’s right for them. For me, what I have invested into has shifted radically. My laundry is not up to date. My house is not as clean as it used to be. It’s about releasing the control of what used to maybe look better and just being okay with letting some of that go. I also make a point to teach my boys to cook and to clean. They are young men, and it’s about becoming more of a unit in getting things done, which I believe has allowed them to mature in a lot of ways. We made a decision as a family about what we value, and we invest our time and energy there. I believe this investment has changed the course of their lives. With my older sons, I am now getting to see them now carry it into their own lives.
G: What do you want people in our community to know about Watts of Love?
N: All are welcome. That’s it. That’s really the biggest thing for us. We can make excuses for not getting involved because we differ on religious views or political views. Light shines on all equally, no matter where you stand. We need passionate people with purpose to come alongside us.
Mark your calendars for Giving Tuesday on November 27. For more information about Watts of Love, visit wattsoflove.org