Steve Neill: Founder and CEO of AidGear
Steve Neill is a UK native who has spent much of his life traveling the globe as a disaster relief volunteer. After living in Canada, Thailand, and New Zealand, Steve finally settled in USA where he founded AidGear.
In 1987 at the age of 19, Steve traveled to Thailand to serve as a volunteer with Youth With a Mission. "I was young and inexperienced, but eager to learn all I could about the plight of refugees living in Thailand," says Steve. "I volunteered as a handyman to fix broken doors and lights. I worked for a large team of doctors and health workers in a small Thai border town called Ban Taphraya. We often heard the fighting between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces across the border and had to familiarize ourselves with security protocols to avoid putting ourselves in danger. It was quite an eye-opener!"
Steve recounts the time he visited the refugee camp called Site Two. "One of my first impressions were the crowds of people with nowhere to go. The camp was hot and exposed. I remember seeing crowds of men, women, and children gathering around water collection points. The constant sight of leaky UNBRO trucks making daily trips to provide chlorinated water to the thousands of refugees helped me realize that water was obviously a big deal."
"During my first time in Thailand, I visited the Burmese border to meet Karen refugees. These refugees were scattered across numerous camps, many inaccessible by road during the rainy season. For many of these wonderful people, their living conditions were basic. I was able to stay on the camps and live in their bamboo shelters. I drank a lot of boiled water and thankfully never got sick. The biggest threat it seemed was from malaria though I did see many people with intestinal issues."
Steve has made almost 30 separate visits to Thailand since 1987, working as a freelance photojournalist and bringing relief aid to Karen refugees from Burma.
"Each time I traveled to Thailand or Burma, I expected to get diarrhea or constipation. Despite being as careful as possible, I couldn't always guarantee the quality of the water or food I was consuming. The worst time however, was when I got really sick with dengue fever. I was living on the Thai/Cambodian border when I experienced the worst headaches and energy-sapping fatigue I've ever had. It was awful," recalls Steve. "After that experience I became an advocate for adding small guppy fish to all the water containers we used for washing and flushing our toilets -- those fish ate the dengue mosquito larvae and mitigated further sickness amongst the team."
Steve quickly gained an understanding of the various dimensions of disaster relief during his many visits to refugee camps, disaster zones and by attending various conferences and seminars. "One of the things you learn very quickly is that without access to clean water and sanitation you can forget about being successful in other areas of relief aid. If kids are sick because of diarrhea, their education suffers. If a parent can't work because of illness, the whole family suffers. Water is the backbone to supporting other relief and recovery efforts."
"I got really sick in Romania. It was a few months after Ceaucescu was killed. I was traveling around the country and staying in different places eating unfamiliar food. My Romanian hosts were wonderful people -- very generous with the little they had to share. I assumed that everything would agree with my stomach but somewhere I picked up a nasty stomach bug. The mother of one of my friends had spent ages cooking a huge meal and was proud to have her family share it with me... but all I could do was look at it, leave the house and throw up -- my stomach couldn't bear anything else!"
In 2008 Steve founded Community Aid Relief and Development (CoAid), a non-profit organization in response to Cyclone Nargis in Burma. "We just wanted to start helping people in whatever way we could. The first ever project we did was to give each child in a refugee school their own pair of shoes and an umbrella. Many of these kids only had one set of clothes so the umbrella kept them dry on their walk to school during the rainy season. The shoes helped protect their feet from getting hookworm. It was a low-cost, high-impact project."
In January 2010, CoAid responded to the massive earthquake that struck Haiti. Once again Steve found himself in the middle of a disaster zone. "People were desperate for good water. It was a common theme at the UN cluster meetings," recalls Steve. In August, just before the cholera outbreak, CoAid partnered with a few other organizations to set up water tanks on a few IDP camps. "We gave several hundred families safe, clean drinking water each day and probably saved a few lives in the process."
Steve's collective experience of volunteering with disaster response organizations in Thailand, Burma, India, Africa, and Haiti has given him strong insights into the practical needs of disaster victims.
Using his more than 25 years experience in disaster response, Steve started AidGear with the goal of developing highly reliable equipment disaster responders could trust in the field. "Our goal is to build the type of equipment I would want to take with me to the field. Staying healthy in the middle of a disaster zone is too important to leave to chance. Saving lives is our first priority."
Contact Steve Neill