A Mission of Light
Contributed by David Wiwchar of the Sudbury Ontario Stake
To understand why the simple convenience of flipping on a light switch to some societies is a life-changing miracle, you must walk in the shoes of Elders David Wiwchar and Larry Mark Echo Hawk, missionaries assigned to serve the people of Costa Rica in 1991. Their street contacts with indigenous youth who spoke no Spanish and later interactions with families from deep in the mountains may have seemed insignificant at the time, but those coincidences led to enhancing the lives of thousands of people as they brought light to their homes and into their lives.
Saying that Costa Rica’s mountainous south is remote would be an understatement. With nothing but footpaths crossing the continental divide, the residents spend as much as five days walking in order to trade for supplies.
What might have been a bug-infested bush land to some was an adventure for the pair of missionaries. Though local citizens assured them that there were no indigenous communities living in the mountains now, contacts with natives speaking other dialects made them wonder. In 2000 on an excursion with local church member Javier Ibanez, Elder Wiwchar got his answer: he and his companion found people widely scattered deep in the forest who spoke very little Spanish, but primarily used their own dialect. The natives lived in difficult conditions–their huts were made with split logs bound with vines and covered with palm-thatched roofs.
“At nightfall,” recalls Brother Wiwchar, “the only source of light was jars stuffed with diesel-soaked rags that were ignited.
The common tool for getting food was a blow pipe to shoot some birds so they could make soup.”
This discovery brought some satisfaction to Elder Wiwchar: there are Indigenous people living beyond the roads in the forest. He also cultured feelings of empathy. While interaction with the modern world began to provide education and enlightenment for the natives, the demands of survival precluded much time for their children to study, learn, progress and to provide. Even when schooling was offered, the children had to work until it was too dark to read and study.
Those are the memories of the land and the images of people that Elder Wiwchar carried home to Sudbury, Ontario. The memories were not forgotten.
In 2003, David Wiwchar read about a humanitarian organization with a simple goal: provide clean, inexpensive lighting for people whose homes had no electricity. “I immediately thought of the people in Costa Rica and wanted to help them,” he recalls.
The next summer, Brother Wiwchar, now a school teacher, used funds raised by his student council to purchase five solar-powered electricity kits with panels, batteries and an array of LED lights. “My wife and I took our four children and traveled to Costa Rica to form partnerships with public and private organizations. These people helped identify technicians to install the lighting systems and to provide maintenance.
“We would be the fundraisers and the trainers of technicians,” says Brother Wiwchar, “they would provide installation and technicians to perform repairs.”
As a school teacher and vice-principal in the Rainbow School District in Sudbury, he recruited help from students. “They became the fundraisers,” says Brother Wiwchar, “and the money raised bought lighting for a people living in darkness. It gave the students who qualified the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica and witness the benefits of their work.”
As their boots hit the ground, the Wiwchar family and his students became not only the light bearers, they also helped lift other loads. “Once, we saw a frail old woman in her seventies straining to carry the diesel fuel needed to light her home. My students picked up her load and carried it for a portion of her two-day journey home.”
Later that afternoon, the students' efforts were realized when another woman’s home received an installation of solar panels and LED lighting. “One load of solar batteries and LED lights will relieve her of carrying that diesel fuel for many years,” says Brother Wiwchar.
The people of Costa Rica were not the only beneficiaries. Among the students who have made the grueling, steep hike through thick brush and heavy humidity was Andrew Corbett of Seattle, Washington.
“I thought, 'Who would ever want to live up here?' But, after we saw the people, they were humble and loved us without even knowing us and we could see the pure love of Christ in their lives.”
Not only homemakers, but the young and families were blessed by light. “Students could do school work by LED light in the evenings,” says Brother Wiwchar, “and their lives were improved by eliminating the smoke of diesel lamps positioned near work areas and by children’s school books at night.”
The people of Costa Rica and Brother Wiwchar’s students continue to benefit from his vision. “When they go on the lighting trips, they realize that it is ridiculous that they are dissatisfied with their latest gadgets while others live so well and are so healthy and strong with so little. They become aware of the contrast between their lives of consumption and others’ lives of simplicity. They return home resolved to make a difference in their own lives.”
Andrew Corbett, among many others, echoes those lessons learned. “Things don't make happiness. They saw what was really valuable in life and knew what was really important - their family. They were closer to God because they had fewer earthly distractions.”
In addition to lighting the lives of the countrymen of his mission, Brother Wiwchar receives a bonus from the lives of his students. “It feels good to see their faces when the lights go on,” he says.