Making darkness dwindle: Comedy night to benefit Watts of Love
BY DENISE M. BARAN-UNLAND Correspondent September 27, 2013 2:02PM
Nancy Economou (left) and Lisa Smith (right) sit with a midwife on the island of Ilin in the Philippines after presenting her with a lantern. | Supplied photo
If you go
What: Watts of Love comedy night
When: 6 p.m. Oct. 5
Where: St. Dennis Church, 1214 S. Hamilton St., Lockport
Etc: Two professional comedians (Bill Brady and Paul Kelly) and dinner catered by Mamma Onesta’s in Lockport. Wine, beer and other refreshments will be available. Age 21 and older.
Tickets: $30; reserve by Oct. 2.
Visit: www.billbradycomedian.com and www.itsfunny.biz
Contact: Harold Keen at 708-214-7541
Updated: October 30, 2013 6:34AM
During a week when Lisa Smith was in the Philippines giving 20 to 30 renewable solar lights to the people of the remote island of Ilin, the scenario looked like this: Smith would sit on the dirt floors of the dark bamboo huts, pray and then patiently teach the natives how to press a button.
“We’d say, ‘God wants you to have this light. He sees you and wants you to know he’s there,’ ” said Smith, the principal at St. Dennis School in Lockport. “Then we’d turn on the light and see that their walls were covered with images of Jesus and the Blessed Mother.”
The Knights of Columbus Council 1176 in Lockport on Saturday will host a comedy night for Watts of Love, an international nonprofit dedicated to bringing safe and renewable solar energy to the 1.3 billion people living without basic access to electricity, according to www.wattsoflove.org.
Its founder, Nancy Economou of Downers Grove, is Smith’s friend. In March, Smith accompanied Economou to Ilin, where they distributed solar lights.
Harold Keen, an outside guard with the Knights of Columbus Council 1176, said the comedy night is just one example of this council’s main mission of fundraising to help others.
“It’s our labor of love,” Keen said. “You don’t become a good knight by attending meetings. You’ve got to work for it.”
Smith said Economou had accompanied her husband on a business trip to the Philippines, where she saw the lack of proper lighting — from a single kerosene lamp, at best — in any given home in the Manila slums. This led the couple to create a solar light.
Soon after Economou founded Watts of Love, the Missionaries of Mother Mary of the Poor, which had a seminary on Ilin, placed an order for 1,000 lights. The Watts of Love website said the island has no “electricity, portable water, sewer, roads or permanent buildings.”
The recipients would be 1,000 of the 35,000 families living on the “highest points of the mountain and the farthest reaches of the island, places where the brothers only visited once a week,” Smith said.
Many of these people, Smith said, were widows raising a dozen children. The men worked either as fishermen, often traveling eight hours away from home to work two to three months at a time, or in rice fields from sunup to sundown. During rainy season, they harvested seaweed.
“It’s a hard life and there’s no money to be made in any of it,” Smith said. “So the brothers worked up a contract with each family. They could receive the light without cost but they had to agree not to sell the light and to promise to protect the light. In return for this gift, they needed to give some of their time and talent back to the church or to help another family.”
During the 24-hour plane trip, Smith and Economou devised an instructional plan for solar light usage. They would gather 20 to 30 women at a time into a classroom for lessons.
When the women arrived, they learned the brothers wished for them to deliver each light in person.
“We walked two to three hours to get to one place,” Smith said. “It was unbelievably hot, about 120 to 130 degrees. We’d explain how to use the lights but it’s difficult to teach people how to push a button to turn on the light when they’ve never seen a button. It took a long time.”
The brothers, understanding the needs of Anglo Westerners, Smith said, provided her and Economou with sterilized utensils and plenty of filtered water to prevent heat exhaustion and sickness.
The two women stayed in the guest area of the brick seminary. The windows had no screens, but the lodgings did include running water, a flush toilet and a generator-run fan that moved the hot night air.
“As far as I was concerned, it was five-star accommodations,” Smith said. “We had to be careful of the food we ate but at least we had food to eat. We met families that were living on salt and starving to death because they could not afford to buy rice.”
Nevertheless, the experience was “heartbreakingly beautiful,” and Smith, who longs to be a missionary, did not want to come home.
“I can’t even tell you the lessons I learned,” Smith said. “These old women will walk two hours down the mountain and across the rice fields to get to Mass every Sunday and then walk the two hours back.”
Smith also realized that the financial principles ingrained into her — work, save, budget, plan for the future, prioritize — are foreign to people surviving day to day. There’s no “save up money to buy a pig” or “to fix my roof,” which Smith prays changes.
“I feel that by teaching them how to use the lights, we’ll do more than light up their huts,” Smith said. “We’ll illuminate their minds.”