Jefferson AwardsBy Sharon Chin

(KPIX 5) — About 1 billion people in the world have no access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. A South Bay man is helping change that with an invention he helped sketch on a coffee shop napkin.

When the sun goes down, young people without electricity in poor communities around the globe study by kerosene and candlelight.

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To give students a few more hours of light for learning, Doug McNeil described in a past interview how he and fellow engineer Jesse Salem invented a renewable lighting source, using a battery, solar panel, charged control circuit, and an LED strip.

“With these four components, we could light a room to the equivalent of a 60 watt lightbulb,” McNeil said.

McNeil and Salem founded Lighting for Literacy in 2012. Since then, the group’s given away 1,000 lighting systems for free, benefitting 20,000 young people in dozens of places worldwide, most recently in Mexico, the Philippines and Ethiopia.

McNeil’s commitment has not dimmed even though his co-founder Salem died of cancer, and McNeil himself now battles amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, it has significantly weakened his muscles.

McNeil requires 24-hour care and communicates with an optical scanner: it reads his eye movement to slowly “type” out words for the computer to speak. Through the communicator, he said, “The greatest joy I receive from Lighting for Literacy is empowering youth to change the world with simple technology.”

Despite his condition, McNeil continues to lead the program.

With the support of Los Gatos Morning Rotary and United Methodist Church, thousands of Bay Area students like Annika Abraham learn science and technology as they volunteer to assemble the lights for shipment.

“I would like to be able to solve an problem that comes my way,” Abraham, a 6th grader, said.

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Other students, like high school junior Caroline Wagner, go on the group’s trips. They install the lights and give away books while building houses for the underserved in Mexico.

“You have this knowledge that you were able to change someone’s life,” Wagner said.

In 2013, President Obama recognized Lighting for Literacy as a Champion of Change. With the support of his wife Sherri and their family, McNeil models perseverance in the face of adversity.

It inspires Lighting for Literacy CFO Gary Lord, who’s known McNeil since 7th grade..

“It hasn’t stopped him at all. There’s many times I’ll wake up and I’ll get an email that he did at 2 in the morning,” said Lord.

These days, McNeil and his family are also raising money for ALS They raised $35,000 last year. On October 5th, they’re taking part in the ALS walk at Coyote Point.

Go Fund Me Account to help with Doug McNeil’s 24/7 home nursing, which allows him to stay home and able to feel well enough to keep working on Lighting for Literacy.

Walk to Defeat ALS Team Maverick Fundraiser

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