After a week-long distribution of 180 solar lights, ambassador Sierra Fan reflects on her experience in the Philippines.
Here I am, in the seat of a small jet surrounded by fog and mist and the general tint of turbid blue. Tired, sleep deprived, yet so content with life. Catanduanes comes into view in gaps between the clouds, now just a little dot of dark green in the background. But I know that this dot is the place of unexploited, undeveloped paradise: the rectangular forms of rice fields, almost a monochromatic Mondrian, pocking out of the deep vegetation of the mountains, miles upon miles of pristine beaches, water a type of clear aquamarine. At night, the stars blink through the thick humidity of the tropics, asking for thought and new perspectives on life. But something more than just the scenery makes this island so special to me. The people have a vibe of boundless energy and hospitality. Greetings alone are close and personal, none of the American formality of hand shaking, but kisses on the cheek, pulling back to reveal the most genuine, welcoming smiles I have ever seen. Adults are tito and tita, adopted “aunts” and “uncles”, no longer strangers. And this is what the island is, an entire family unshaken by the pressures and stresses of the society I know. Even being an outsider, sharing with them not the language nor the customs, though I do share some of the looks, there is a human bond of understanding even when literal communication does not come through. Here, I am truly content and I feel so privileged to have been able to make this paradise just a bit more perfect.
To me, there is a sharp distinction in this project. One half is the logistics: the fundraising, communicating, organizing, ordering, planning. And the other half is the actual reality. There is a sense of surrealism, a dreamlike quality to the distribution of lights. In my mind, that day (April 11th, 2011, now forever etched into my brain) was something out of reach. There had been expectations, guesses, all kinds of wondering what it would be like, but one thing missing had been certainty. Even just weeks or days before the set date, there still had been a chance of failure. Each step of ordering, transferring, and shipping was filled with hurdles. Our minds were filled with “what if’s” and for the majority of the time, the probability of a successful distribution was smaller than that of failure. Through all the unexpected obstacles that were thrown into our path, we were only led to feel its unreality. So when all of us, singing at the top of our lungs to pop songs, were traveling into Barangay Dugui Too on the back of a truck that said “Catanduanes Solid Waste Management,” pretty much holding on as hard as we could to ropes so that we would not flip over the truck’s edge, the most prominent thought in my head was on the lines of “this is a dream.” As cliché as it sounds, I could not believe that it was actually happening. There, we waited as the villagers slowly poured into the open space, curiosity evident on their faces. The children, as like those of all cultures, eagerly came the closest and had to be arranged into lines by the organizers. We visitors met the inquisitive gazes of a few hundred villagers and smiled back in silent communication. Though there were some language barriers, the solar light distribution itself was organized, efficient, and effective, yet the warmhearted generosity of all the stakeholders within the project shined through. Teaching the villagers even the most basic aspects of the solar light functions, and seeing their reactions, and knowing in our hearts that these lights will make a sustainable difference in their futures, made me feel washed over with happiness. It is a privilege and pure pleasure to touch people’s lives in that way, a smile never left my face through the entire process. By the end, after we had distributed to all families present and on the list, we were completely exhausted. I will have a permanent image of the OML Philippines team, sitting on the edge of the made-do stage, all eating cheap hamburgers that are probably made from carabao meat, tired to the core yet so deliriously happy. I looked at the few remaining kids, one without shoes, throwing a frisbee around in the clearing, and I hoped that the lights will make a change in their lives. For once, I forgot about the stress and doubt of being an American high school student in an overachieving society, tied down by sky-high expectations. Because I started to understand that the priority is that those people do not even have electric lighting, yet they still survive and are happy. Who am I to complain when we together have just changed the lives of hundreds for the better. There is no comparison.
Now we are almost landing in Manila, but I cannot forget this. As a quick addition, I would just like to give thanks to all the stakeholders who have contributed so much time, energy, and funds toward this project. Especially my fellow high school students: Mark, Tricia, Monica, Ben, and Jv, who I know have worked to their absolute hardest in the past 9 months to make this a reality. Yes, you are all overachievers, but not in the most classical sense. I used to be scared when I heard the quotation, “You are an overachiever, you do everything it takes until it takes everything you are.” But now, we know that even if we are at times “babaw,” “tamad,” and “sabaw (space-y)”, we have found our calling in helping others, and nothing is going to take that away from us. We are the catalyst in the line of dominos, and even if that takes an incredible amount of time and effort, it will have the exponential effect of inspiring others to do the same. I have heard so many times from strangers who have heard about this project the surprised response that teenagers could make a difference in a world. We are taking down the teenager stereotypes and making our time so much more worthwhile. This is only the beginning. I know that it will spread to at least 1000 lights by next year and definitely even more in the future.
Besides the organizations who have worked with us, namely One Million Lights; Rotary and Interact clubs of STI-Makati, Catanduanes, Nisku-Leduc, Calmar Secondary School, and Edmonton West; Philippine Airlines; and Gunn High School, who I would like to give thanks for all their help, I would also like to acknowledge one group that has often gone unnoticed: our parents. They are oftentimes the encouragement we desperately need when obstacles seemed insurmountable. They are the saviors, stepping in and solving problems when high school students were not being taken seriously. They are the backstage helpers and the paparazzi. You all have all put so much time and effort into this project and deserve a big hug and a million thank you’s.
With this ends my reflections for the first solar lights distribution, this journey cannot be described adequately in words. But these are a taste of the feelings and thanks I have that I wish to show the world.