The following article was published in the Ayala Alabang Village Association News, the community newsletter of Tricia and Mark’s village.
The story of One Million Lights – Philippines began after Mark came back from the Global Youth Leaders Conference (GYLC) in Washington, D.C. The conference inspired him after meeting people his age, who were already leading or joining movements that helped the less-fortunate. A few weeks later, in a debate tournament, Mark approached Tricia and some other friends with an idea after a round centered on an environmental issue that left everyone frustrated.
“What if we planted trees to solve the problem?”
“What if we started a recycling campaign?”
“What if we gave solar powered lights?”
For a moment, it seemed as though the world stood still. It got us all thinking. Within a week, Mark discovered One Million Lights (OML), an international non-profit organization based in Palo Alto, California, through his connections in GYLC. At the same time, Tricia found Barangay Dugui Too, a community in Catanduanes that desperately needed help. Thus, what began as a stray, playful idea was about to become an inspired reality.
Things started to take shape when we finally contacted the main OML Team in California. At first, it was hard to believe that anything would come out of the idea especially since we were busy and we didn’t know how to go about things. However, after many late nights of conference calls with members of the California team, we eventually received a balikbayan box filled with OML sample lights, and documents to aid us in our distribution efforts. At this point, we realized that OML had become a worthwhile commitment.
We faced many hurdles along the way to our first distribution in Barangay Dugui Too, Virac, Catanduanes. First was the skepticism surrounding us because of our age. When we went to meetings in corporate attire, they would throw around jokes like, “Did you buy the suit just for this meeting?” But we continued to persevere, bringing us sponsors like Philippine Airlines who airlifted the solar-powered lights for free from China, and a customs broker, The Certified Brokerage Corp, who worked pro bono.
Fundraising was also a daunting task. We sold Christmas cards, and solicited funds from family and friends, yet the money we raised was not enough. Eventually, we decided to think of other sources of help. Facebook became a medium for us to communicate with friends from the United States, Canada, Singapore, and South Africa, who raised over $3,200 for our project. In the process, we found help in Sierra Fan, from California, and Ben Turner, from Canada, who helped us in many ways.
However, what proved to be our biggest challenge was our inexperience. We did not know how to go about customs and taxes. Once, when we were talking about deeds of donations in a breakfast meeting, a few men overheard and scoffed at us. It was evident that we did not know what we were doing. Gradually, however, we became comfortable with the routine go-around of forms, meetings, papers and signatures.
Yet, the smooth sailing didn’t last. First, international air travel regulations restricted air-freight of the batteries in the solar powered lights, leaving the boxes of lights stranded in Beijing. We desperately contacted the airline’s shipping directors and the Philippine, Chinese, and American embassies in the hope of some kind of miracle. Thankfully, the authorities soon gave their permission. Next, when the lights finally arrived in the Philippines, we could not claim them. The airway bill was missing and it had to be traced from the lights-manufacturing company, to the Beijing Airport, and eventually NAIA. Luckily, Philippine Airlines found it and claimed the lights for us. Eventually, everything fell into place.
As the date of our actual distribution in Catanduanes approached, it still seemed like something out of a fairytale, too good to come true. However, on April 10, we found ourselves on our way to Dugui Too, with thirty youth counterparts and 250 solar lights on the back of a dump truck.
After more than an hour and a half of travelling, going through mountains, and crisscrossing rivers, we arrived at Barangay Dugui Too. Cogon houses dotted the area, and in the center of it all, was a rundown, dilapidated community hall, that served as the site of our distribution proper. We received a less than welcome greeting. Yet, we did not let that faze us.
After a few hours, we were sharing smiles with the recipients despite our stumbling efforts to cross the language barrier. Just teaching the villagers the technicalities of the lights and seeing their faces alight made everything we had worked on for months worth it. Sharing the lights went beyond the materialization of a metaphor. By switching to solar-powered lights, the recipients freed themselves from the shackles of kerosene lamps and welcomed a new beginning into their lives. The 30% of their daily income spent on kerosene became their children’s tuition fees. Work hours farming abaca deep in the forest became longer, since night time is no longer an obstacle for them, allowing them to earn more money. Little by little, they are alleviating themselves from poverty.
Before we left Catanduanes, one of our youth volunteers wrote us a letter. He wrote, “Good people are like lighted candles. The darker the night, the brighter they shine.” The night may be dark in Catanduanes, but in other places, it is much darker. Lighting up the lives of 250 families is hardly the end; in fact, it is only the beginning.
Next summer, in partnership with Energizer, One Million Lights – Philippines is going to five different provinces, Mindoro, Kalinga-Apayao, Mountain Province, Eastern Samar and Rizal to distribute 2,750 lights to more isolated and impoverished rural communities. These lights will light up the lives of more than fifteen thousand Filipinos.
We still have a long way to go in terms of fundraising, expansion, and distribution. But that doesn’t matter. We’re here to light up lives not only for today, or for next year, but for many more years to come. We’ve put together a group of committed youth from the Philippines and from different parts of the world who are truly happy to be part of this movement.