Not sure what to say, I smiled, nodded and moved on. But those words, which roughly meant, “Thank you, sir, for your help,” just capped the most meaningful experience of my life.
The unpaved, muddy trail, which our group trekked for almost two hours, ended in a mountain- slope community in the island of Negros in the Philippines. The monsoon rains did not diminish the breathtaking views, and we found ourselves warmly welcomed by what was probably the whole population whose children attended the Miguel S. Mondia elementary school.
For me, it all started more than a year, perhaps almost two years, ago. It was when I looked outside the window of the van I was in that I began to see the poverty in my parents’ home country of the Philippines. There were at least five children who were pressing their faces against the vehicle’s window, begging for some spare change. I felt terrible when the driver shooed them away. Finally, my mom suggested maybe I could think of something that could benefit some Filipino children more permanently. But what, exactly, could I do?
Back home in California, I had spent some time using Google and watching YouTube videos in an effort to do a bit of research when I discovered the website of One Million Lights. By distributing solar lamps to communities around the world, volunteers can make a difference in the recipients’ lives. These lamps were the perfect alternative to the relatively expensive, dangerous and unhealthy kerosene lamps families depended on.
By becoming a Global Ambassador, one can actually distribute solar lamps while on vacation. It fit my plans perfectly, because my family planned to visit our relatives, especially my grandfather, in the Philippines soon. With help from Negrense Volunteers for Change Foundation (NVC), a local nonprofit I trusted, all students of Miguel Mondia elementary school in Sitio Bais, Barangay Yubo, La Carlota City, were chosen to be beneficiaries of 82 solar lamps. This school and all the homes surrounding had no access to electricity.
A couple of things happened, which made me doubt that the distribution was going to push through. I had chosen to deliver the Great White Light, which costs double the regular solar lamp. I was too sure I could raise money. I thought how difficult could that be, right? But my dad was diagnosed with stage-4 renal cell carcinoma early this year, and our family’s focus was understandably on my dad.
However, at the last minute, everything was almost miraculously put into place. In fact, at the last minute, we procured 68 additional lights to deliver to another barangay. My family was very happy for us to be able to make this trip. We could have a vacation, visit relatives, especially my grandfather, and I could do the solar distributions.
The first delivery happened on my fourth day in the Philippine island of Negros, and I felt that the rains would never, ever, stop. Our group, composed of Mark Lozano’s OML Philippines team, NVC Foundation’s Carmela Regalado, local volunteers and myself, met very early that morning to go on a convoy to Escalante, the city from where we would hike to the distribution site. As much as I wanted to bring up the topic of the heavy downpour to the others, I did not, for I knew it was monsoon season, and this day was probably like any other!
Our two days felt so out of the ordinary. The Miguel Mondia recipients made a huge “Welcome” sign for us and served us native rice snacks to give us energy on our 1.5 -hour trek back to our vehicles. Barangay Santol, the second distribution site, was so high up in the mountains that we had to accept the Binalbagan congressman’s offer to take a ride in his Hummer in order to reach the location. On both days, we were introduced to the crowd before we were expected to make speeches.
Whoever said, “It feels good to give” was absolutely right. Donating is only half of the equation. It is the other half – the giving, the connection with another person, that makes us feel more human. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with One Million Lights. I hope to make another distribution with Mark, Mike, Chris and Raffy of OML Philippines soon.
James Olivas is a Filipino high school student from California who traces his roots to Bacolod City. Last year, he embarked on a personal mission to bring positive change to some members of his community.