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June 2, 2023
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Humanitarian loses fight with ALS

Doug McNeil co-founded Lighting for Literacy

Doug McNeil was a vibrant Monte Sereno resident who helped bring solar lighting to thousands of youths across the globe.

He died July 31 after a five-year battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Professionally, McNeil was an aerospace engineer at NASA and worked on the Hubble telescope.

But his best-known contribution is Lighting for Literacy, which he co-founded in 2011. The organization trains local STEM students to make inexpensive, solar-powered LED lights with off-the-shelf parts.

The idea is to bring lighting to homes that don’t have electricity, so that children living in poverty can study at night.

“The amazing thing about this organization and the brainstorm of what Doug and (the late) Jesse Salem drew on a Starbucks napkin back in 2012 is that the benefits of LFL are full circle. The youth and families involved in the builds utilize their skills to learn about solar power,” said Lighting for Literacy co-president Christina Roberts Enneking.

LFL is co-sponsored by the Los Gatos Methodist Church and Los Gatos Morning Rotary.

In mid-April 2012, McNeil and a group of volunteers traveled to Punta Colonet, Mexico, where they installed 10 LED lights. By 2019, the lights had been installed in 23 countries, as well as  Puerto Rico and Colorado’s Navajo nation.

A once-in-a-lifetime moment came in 2013, when McNeil led a group of LFL volunteers to the White House, where they were honored as “Champions for Change.”

“He embodied service above self, and his energy and joy were infectious,” LFL volunteer Dr. Peter Taylor said. “The whole world is a better place in so many ways because Doug lived the remarkable life that he did.”

From midwives laboring in the dark to children who returned to school and were able to teach their parents to read and write, Lighting for Literacy is all about “lifting people up.”

One LFL recipient who lives high in the Himalayas said, “These lights are like giving an eye to a blind man. You will never know the value of your gift. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

McNeil and his wife Sherry would have celebrated their 38th anniversary in October; they had two children, Matthew and Jessica.

Despite his community involvement and business success, McNeil was always there for his family, his daughter Jessica Eastland said.

“He never missed anything,” she said. “I was into model rockets in middle school and we participated in a national competition. He came to every workshop and launch we had. And he was at every single football game my brother ever had. It was his magic—he didn’t let the stress of his job leak into our family. When he was present with us he was wholly present.”   

McNeil also coached his children’s soccer and volleyball teams.

His long-time best friend Gary Lord said, “When I think through some of my favorite things about Doug, there’s so many that come to mind. Certainly his sense of humor, always finding levity no matter what the situation was. Throughout Doug’s illness that didn’t change. He was always looking for ways to make it easier for all of us to cope and help him cope by introducing humor into the situation. And then his strong sense of loyalty to family and friends and extended family and friends—that’s just always been a big part of who he was.”

Fellow Rotarian Ginger Taylor McDonald said, “He’s impacted my life knowing that no matter what happens and no matter how the odds appear to be against you, if you have the love and support of family and friends there’s a way to continue in a meaningful way. For those of us who were fortunate to work in partnership with Doug, his smile and kindness will forever resonate.”

Several people remarked about McNeil’s kindness, one quoting him as saying, “It’s better to be kind than right.”

McNeil’s family is planning an unconventional Celebration of Life for Oct. 8 at Coyote Point Recreation Area in San Mateo.

“Every year we participate in the Silicon Valley Walk to Defeat ALS, so we’re trying to get as many participants as we can,” Eastland said. “After the walk, we’ll have a Celebration of Life in the picnic area. We’ll be walking with our Los Gatos team, the Mavericks, because my dad was a maverick.”

To participate, visit web.alsa.org/goto/maverick22.

The ALS Association estimates it costs $200,000 annually to sustain an ALS patient, so McNeil’s lengthy illness was financially difficult for his family. That’s why the family is accepting donations at gofundme.com/f/mnyra3-doug-mcneil-fight-against-als.


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