Involve Me and I Will Understand

Douglas McNeilDouglas McNeil is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts in being a Rotarian.


My dream to become part of the space program was set in stone the day I watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I was only nine at the time, but I can still feel the excitement of that moment. During my teens, I was selected to participate in NASA’s youth training program. We were trained by a couple of remarkable engineers who set such good examples that they paved the way for my career as an engineer, and later helped me with mentoring and developing programs for youth. To this day, I emulate the style of those engineers in hopes to inspire teens to pursue careers in science.

My engineering career began at NASA/Ames Research Center as an intern, then on to Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space, where I joined a team of engineers. At Lockheed I participated in the designing, developing, and launching of over 118 satellites with several launch service providers from three continents. I have held executive positions in several Silicon Valley cutting-edge companies, developing and launching new products for the Aerospace, Wireless Telecommunications, Laser Communications, Biometrics, and High-Throughput Materials Research industries. My work has taken me around the world. I have worked with and developed international business partners in Moscow, China, Australia, Taiwan, Germany, and France. Presently I am a Senior Director at Kinestral Technologies, Inc., in San Francisco.

As a parent of two children, the opportunity to coach and mentor young people for the past twenty years has been part of our family activity. With two active and very curious children, the scope of the programs ranged from sports, the environment, technology, space, and science. When I joined Los Gatos Morning Rotary Club, I embraced the chance to create a program that would engage local youth in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) in a way that would allow them to change the world for youth living in other countries.

A philosophy I often refer to when working with youth sets the tone for Lighting for Literacy:

Tell me and I will forget, show me and I might remember, involve me and I will understand. – Confucius

What began collaboratively with the Los Gatos Morning Rotary and Los Gatos United Methodist Church has now expanded to benefit multiple organizations. One Rotarian commented, “This is one of the best and most relevant next generation projects I have seen serving humanitarian efforts in the United States and the world….we would like to join your cause.”

In 1985, Rotary declared basic literacy to be a pre-condition to the development of world peace. Rotary International has an exponential opportunity to empower and mentor the next generation of youth by helping youth understand that they can change the world with humanitarian service projects that profoundly change the lives of the underprivileged throughout the world.

Twenty percent, or 1.5 billion people, are living in total darkness with no electricity. Within this population, eighty-five percent are illiterate. Most earn an average of $2.50 a day, with thirty percent of their wages spent on kerosene and candles – both highly toxic, flammable products – to heat and light their homes. Los Gatos Morning Rotary in partnership with the United Methodist Church in Los Gatos, California, partnered to develop an Earth Day project for youth to promote literacy with an innovative, renewable, and sustainable solar lighting system. The Lighting for Literacy project teaches science, sustainability, and the Rotary motto of “Service Above Self,” while brightening educational pathways for those living off the grid. With this program, we have changed the lives of youth, and have profoundly influenced the next generation with a clear vision of serving the greater good. Through the power of STEM, youth gain first-hand experience in learning how something that they build with their own hands has the power of global stewardship and the opportunity to raise the human potential for the twenty percent who live in darkness after the sun sets.

In 2012, President Barack Obama announced the White House Initiative called “Educate to Innovate,” which promotes STEM programs and calls for a nationwide educational expansion of science-related projects to build the jobs of the future. With California ranked next to last in science proficiency, it seemed appropriate for Rotary’s District 5170 club in the Silicon Valley to take a lead role in catalyzing change. In 2012, we took a fundamentally simple concept and developed a transformational science program that is changing the lives of over a hundred youth, all in the blink of an eye. This April, another installation is taking place in Mexico.

Middle and high school children work together with adult mentors to learn how to build a basic circuit board. With this board and a one-foot solar panel, a 12-volt battery, an 18-inch LED strip, and the flip of a switch, we are transforming the lives of underprivileged youth across multiple continents. With as little as 60 watts of solar power we are now generating enough renewable light to provide 700,000 lumen hours to win the futures of youth around the world who are living off the grid, all for the low cost of approximately 25 premium lattes per unit. This low-cost, compact, renewable, sustainable solar lighting system, used as a national STEM science project, is now spreading to villages in Mexico and India, providing four hours of lighting every night. This enabling youth service project provides the educational opportunity to read, write, and lead more productive lives. The Lighting for Literacy project helps today’s youth to help millions of underserved youth to learn and to experience the joy of reading.

The hope of the future is education. Mentoring youth with the knowledge to change the lives of others will enable the next generation of Rotarians to bring about profound and inspirational change in ways not thought possible. Through Rotary, we now have a project to educate, empower and enable a new generation of youth previously living in darkness. Together we brighten the futures of those who give and those who receive in building a better world through One Rotary. At a global level, we involve and teach youth so they discover “innovative humanitarian acts of service” to promote Rotary International President Tanaka’s Rotary goal of “Peace through Service.”

Doug McNeil co-developed Lighting for Literacy (LFL) and is the Senior Director at Kinestral Technologies, Inc.

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