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Church Builds Lights for Literacy

Around the world, 1.2 billion people live off-grid. Among this population in developing countries, 80 percent are illiterate. In the Silicon Valley of California, two men, with the help of their church, came up with a simple, inexpensive way to give families the gift of light and literacy.

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When the sun sets, 20 percent of the world lives in darkness.

Doug McNeil, Lighting for Literacy: "They work in the fields, they work in heavy labor type situations where by the time they get home it's dark. And so any opportunity for education is minimized. They either have to study or learn from kerosene or candles. Their day ends as soon as the sun sets. Our goal is to continue to provide lighting, so they have 3-4 more hours of light to study by and to advance and improve their lives."

(Student works with drill) Doug McNeil: "There you go."

(Locator: Los Gatos, California)

Doug McNeil co-created a program at Los Gatos United Methodist Church in California to build $200 solar light kits. Church youth will install the lights inside homes in Colonet, Mexico.

Ailidh Finlayson, Los Gatos United Methodist Church: "Very hands on from day one, creating circuit boards and learning how to use various power tools to assemble the kit. Once I got to Mexico, it's all hands on with the installation, using drills and everything on the walls."

Lighting for Literacy launched in 2010. The project teaches STEM--science, technology, engineering, math--and life lessons. Young engineers see firsthand how different life is for their peers in other countries.

Along with each light the team installs, comes a gift.

Caroline Munson: "They're so excited about getting these books. And I just think that that's just something really cool to experience."

The Rev. Jennifer Murdock, Los Gatos United Methodist Church: "It is a 21st century project that really addresses the obvious need for light and literacy around the world. But you know in our own backyard one of the things I love about Lighting for Literacy is that it connects STEM education. In the United States, young girls are not always encouraged to be involved in STEM projects."

The kits have seen upgrades over the years, and can now charge cell phones too. Lighting for Literacy started as a one-time Earth Day project for Mexico but the idea quickly went global.

Doug McNeil: "Not long after, we got a call from India that they'd had this rolling blackout, And we shipped the light there. It was one of the first 10 that we built. And that light ended up lighting up the Thayi Mane orphanage. So one 7th grade, 11-year-old student built a system that lit the lives of 80 students."

Lighting for Literacy partnerships have formed all over the world.

Doug McNeil: "We build 'em downstairs here at the United Methodist church. They get packed out in their suitcases. They board planes and they head to all reaches and corners of the earth."

In 2013, McNeil and co-founder, Jesse Salem, received the White House Champions of Change award. But McNeil says the best part is watching education light young minds.

Doug McNeill: "I think one of the most amazing stories is when the team came back, and Julia came up to me and said, 'Mr. McNeil, we've built homes. For the first time in my life, I installed compact solar systems. Then all I had to do was flip a switch, and I changed a person's life with science.'"


Lighting for Literacy is a partnership between Los Gatos United Methodist Church and the Los Gatos Morning Rotary Club. Learn more at

This video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.
Media contact is Joe Iovino.

This video was first posted on April 12, 2017.

United Methodist Communications is an agency of The United Methodist Church

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