|A typical street in Port-au-Prince, where people buy food from farmers who live outside the city, while “garbage is all over them, all around them, and sewage is flowing everywhere.” TOMAS SHELEG|
Seeing the light” is not an abstract concept. It is a hard reality, with spectacular implications, says Fort Lee resident Tomas Sheleg.
Sheleg, originally from Israel, traveled to Haiti in July, installing light fixtures that not only garnered gratitude but, he says, saved lives.
“There are lots of robberies during the night. People in the camps are living in pitch black and girls are being raped,” he said. “It’s a common thing since the earthquake. No one understands the scale” of what is happening there, he said, adding that television images don’t show the full horror of the situation.
Founder of the solar lighting company Luna Road, the former Ridgewood resident said the idea for bringing his light panels to Haiti came up during a conversation with Will Recant, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a member of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood.
“We started talking,” said Sheleg. “I showed him one of my products and he was very interested. The idea was to use it in a school in Rwanda to help villages there.”
Then Recant mentioned Haiti, which, he said, needed immediate help.
Told that a specific camp was the site of five rapes in one week – occurring most frequently in the enclosed area where the young girls, 12 to 16, went with a bucket of water to bathe – Sheleg decided to take action.
“Our product is unique,” he said. “It’s small and easy to install.” He thought it would be “an amazing solution” to that problem.
“People were hearing the girls scream but they didn’t go to help because it was too dark,” he said, pointing out that the Port-au-Prince camp, containing some 6,000 people in an area half the size of a football field, had no source of light. So, he said, he decided to produce a few units and rush them to Haiti.
“I flew with the units and joined a representative there from the JDC,” he explained, noting that the Joint Distribution Committee was there to help set up schools and provide food.
“The panels were donated by us – Luna Road – to the JDC,” which covered some expenses, such as shipping.
Sheleg said he was “shocked” by what he saw, especially in Port-au-Prince.
“Some of it is completely destroyed,” he said, adding that while he speaks some French, the predominant language of the country, he was unable to talk directly to the people, using a translator instead. Still, he noted, “you can see that they are very hopeful people. You don’t see their sadness and distress but [rather] a sense of hope.”
Camp residents were very grateful for the light, he said.
“The morning after the first night [with the light] was amazing. You could really feel how happy they were.”
Sheleg said the light took only a half-hour to install and “we could do thousands in a week.” He’s now speaking with other organizations in Haiti interested in having the units put in.
“For the cost of one street bulb you can install 10 of my lights,” he said. “So for the same money, you can help 10 times more people.”
Luna Road was interested from the start in reaching out to needy populations, he explained.
“We were trying to create something cheap enough so everyone could get it,” he said. “Solar technology is cutting edge, but for some it’s inaccessible. So we integrated that technology to make it accessible for third-world countries. We’re Israelis,” he said. “We saw a situation and said, how can we fix it?”
He noted that many of his ideas came from visits to Israel, which he called “the feeding group for any startup today.”
Paying tribute to the JDC, he said the organization had also built a water tank at the camp he visited.
“It’s like a faucet,” said Sheleg, explaining that every other day, fresh water is brought in on a truck.
“They do amazing work; I was very impressed,” he said. “I’m happy to know the Joint is there to help Jews all over the world, but not only our own. It shows that our Jewish spirit goes the extra mile.”
Sheleg, who had already been to the United States several times, said he came again in 2006 through Zahal Shalom, established more than 10 years ago to bring disabled Israeli veterans to New Jersey. Soldiers stay as guests of local families, spending two weeks visiting New York City and Washington, D.C., and participating in community events.
“It creates an interesting dynamic between Bergen County residents and veterans from Israel,” he said.
According to its website, Luna Road – which specializes in the design, manufacture, and installation of “high-tech ‘cat’s eyes'” – was founded to spread the use of solar technology and is “determined to help bring night-time road safety to drivers all around the planet.” Luna Road lights, cell-phone size solar cells, trap the sun’s energy during the day for use at night.
“We believe in saving lives, preserving the environment, and beautifying night-time roads around the globe,” he said, adding that – as he learned in Haiti – light can save lives in more ways than one.
“We will give the units at cost to help the people of Haiti and other NGOs who are looking to do good.”