House fires that took lives and destroyed homes in the Dominican Republic – tragedies caused by candles or propane lanterns used for light – were events Miguel Mendez read about too often in the newspaper of his native country.

Miguel, a member of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Milwaukee, thought there must be a safer way to provide light for people lacking a reliable source of electricity. Spotting solar-powered landscaping lights in a home improvement store, he brought some to the Dominican Republic when he and his wife, Melanie, visited his family in 2008.

One of Miguel’s brothers in the Dominican Republic, Fr. Feliciano Mendez, serves the parish of Nuestra Señora de la Alta Gracia (Our Lady of the Highest Grace) in Las Yayas. Fr. Feliciano gave some of the solar lights to parishioners. Seeing how those families benefited from the lights, “my brother said we had to do something so more people could have solar lights,” Miguel recalled.

Las Yayas is in the same province as the Mendez brothers’ hometown of Los Toros, a small, poor, farming community.

“So many people live in poverty there, many basic needs are not met,” Miguel said. “Families do not have money for medicines or education. Many do not have food every day, they do not have money for propane.”

Miguel is the youngest of 11 children and he is the only family member living in the United States. One brother resides in Spain, and his other siblings live in the Dominican Republic.

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Through an educational scholarship from the Los Toros Mission of St. Joseph Parish in Grafton, Miguel attended college in Santo Domingo. After graduating and working in the Dominican Republic, he moved to the United States in 2001.

Miguel works as a computerized numerical control machinist and Melanie teaches art at St. Rafael the Archangel School in Milwaukee; they have two daughters, Marbella, 7 years old, and Makayla, almost 2. Melanie, a member of the Oak Creek Assembly of God Church community, said the family is a “dual-church family. Our daughters attend both St. Gregory the Great and the Oak Creek Assembly of God Church and the styles of worship reflect the cultural and spiritual diversity of our family.”

Light for Education begins  

After their visit in 2008, Fr. Feliciano often commented to Miguel and Melanie about the need for more solar lights.

“There are many benefits to the solar lights. They are safe, with no risk of fire, and there are no fumes or smoke,” Miguel noted. “They are convenient, and using solar power also saves the family money that would be spent on candles and propane.”

Miguel researched the availability of brighter solar lanterns designed to be used indoors. He found a manufacturer in China that produced them, but they were not being sold in the Dominican Republic.

That prompted Miguel and a friend, José Christian Agramonte, an engineer in the Dominican Republic who also attended college through the Los Toros Foundation scholarship program, to form a business to have the solar lanterns imported into the country.

Although Miguel said they price the lanterns as fairly as possible at $18.75 a lamp, but many families have little income and cannot buy the lights.

“Knowing that not everyone can afford the lights, Fr. Feliciano asked me to pray about this,” Melanie said. In 2011, she proposed a project to enable people in the United States to sponsor lanterns.  
Called Luz Para Educación (Light for Education), the project brings solar lanterns to families in Los Toros, Las Yayas and Sabana Yegua, part of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s sister parish, La Sagrada Familia Parish.

Fr. Feliciano distributes the lights when he travels to the rural communities to minister and serve the people.

“It’s not much money compared to the benefits they get, but it depends on who’s buying,” Fr. Feliciano told your Catholic Herald during a July visit to Milwaukee. “For a person who doesn’t have money for food ($18.75) is a lot of money.”

Candles, propane lamps can be deadly

Families without solar lamps rely on candles and propane lamps for lighting, but the use can be deadly.

“There are a lot of accidents, many children have died because of accidents with candles,” Miguel said. “That was one of the reasons why we decided to (bring) solar light to the Dominican Republic in order to eliminate the candle and use of propane.”

Growing up, Fr. Feliciano and Miguel’s family were agriculture farmers. During their free time, they played baseball. Miguel was a pitcher and Fr. Feliciano played catcher.

Today’s they’re still playing a form of catch, but instead of baseballs, Miguel is pitching solar lamps to Fr. Feliciano.

“There’s a lot of people who can’t buy them,” Miguel said. “Because when you import them, once they get to the Dominican Republic, the cost for customs and transportation made the price go up.”

Partnership with World Mission Office begins

The solar lantern project had been coordinated through a partnership with the Los Toros Foundation, Melanie said, adding that Light for Education began a partnership last October with the archdiocesan Office of World Mission, involving collections during May and December.

To date, Light for Education has donated 1,120 solar lanterns. Some funds came from the students at St. Rafael the Archangel School, who contributed the money from their Lenten coin collections.

As word has spread about the project, other organizations have become involved including Notre Dame Primary School, Prince of Peace School, the Racine Dominicans, the Siena Retreat Center and the Chicagoland Korean-Northbrook Rotary Club which selected the project as its international service focus for 2013.

The solar lights led to a new relationship between the Korean Rotary Club of Chicago and two Rotary clubs in South Korea. Since March 2013, these groups have worked with Melanie and others in the Milwaukee area, people in the Dominican Republic, community leaders in Las Yayas and the Rotary Club of Azua to develop a matching grant proposal with Rotary International to build a computer lab and library for a school in Las Yayas.

In spring 2012, St. Gregory the Great and Our Lady of the Highest Grace became sister parishes.

“People were very supportive and feel it’s a wonderful project,” said Fr. Thomas Demse, pastor of St. Gregory the Great. “The project brings light to help students with their studying, and the solar lamps are safer for the families.” The parish school plans to raise additional funds for Light for Education, he added.

Twinning relationship ‘blessing from God’

Fr. Feliciano visited Milwaukee for the second time at the end of July and spoke at Masses to tell St. Gregory parishioners about their sister parish, which includes 16 towns and about 3,000 families.

As a priest in these remote areas, he gives of himself in many ways, Miguel explained. “For example, you are the one to go to the government to solve problems for the community, like better water,” he said. “You are the ambulance of the town. Just the other day when I called him, he was at the hospital because he brought a sick child there.”

Also when Fr. Feliciano visited Milwaukee, he hoped to contact a couple who helped pay for his education in the seminary.

“I am very thankful for them,” he said in an email message.

Fr. Feliciano also responded that the twinning relationship with St. Gregory the Great Parish “is a blessing from God. With this relationship that has been established, our families have feelings of hope they didn’t have before.”

Melanie and Miguel have traveled to the Dominican Republic with Marbella several times. Each visit presents opportunities to help the people in Miguel’s home country.

“We support the Los Toros Mission, and we also do things to help support Miguel’s family,” Melanie said. “Marbella helps too, she is very aware of the lantern project and responding to the needs there. We want our children to see and know how important service is to us.”

Noting the opportunities that education and his college scholarship provided him, Miguel added, “Now I can go from being given to being a giver, and I am very thankful. Sharing love and faith and resources opens hope. People here are giving hope to people in the Dominican Republic.”

-Ricardo Torres contributed to this article.  Maryann Bouche, Special to your Catholic Herald