Hope is the key | Dan O'Neill guides Mercy Corps, bringing help around the globe

O'Neill with a child in Sudan-1984.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Dan O’Neill, a Sammamish resident and founder of Mercy Corps, has been involved in humanitarian efforts for more than 30 years.

After living in Israel during the Yom Kippur War and then witnessing the Cambodia killing fields in the late 1970s, O’Neill realized he wanted to focus his life on the human consequences of war.

“It seemed to me that we should do something, as Americans,” he said.

During this time, O’Neill called First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who invited him to work on the White House Cambodia Crisis Committee.

“She was very touched and emotionally invested in what was happening there,” he said.

O’Neill and Carter put together a team and started a one-year task force to combat the issues facing Cambodia. At age 31, O’Neill was selected to be the committee’s executive director.

“I thought it would last about a year,” he said.

One year turned into a lifetime as the project transcended into the 1979 founding of Mercy Corps.

As one of the top humanitarian groups in the world, Mercy Corps prides itself on empowerment and long-term sustainability opposed to simply providing supplies.

“Early on, we moved into a philosophy of local leadership,” he said. “We weren’t Americans telling people on the ground how to live.”

O’Neill said that Mercy Corps’ staff consists mostly of indigenous people who know the country, the people and the culture.

“There was a sense that we were empowering them to take control over their own lives,” he said.

And while Mercy Corps is considered to be a mid-sized NGO with an operating budget of $350 million a year, O’Neill said they are very cost-efficient.

“We take people’s donations very seriously,” he said.

Mercy Corps has recently reached out to the Philippine victims, helping more than 18,000 people in some of the most remote areas of devastation. O’Neill said they have focused a lot of their attention on children who have gone through traumatic experiences, such as losing a loved one.

“After 9/11 in New York, when so many kids were particularly vulnerable to trauma, we came up with a response called ‘Comfort for Kids,’” O’Neill said.

The program provides tools and resources to children and their caretakers to help deal with the psychological shock of traumatic events, such as hurricanes, earthquakes and war. The program is up and running for Syrian refugees in both Lebanon and Jordan.

Locally, O'Neill said they are assisting immigrants, poverty-stricken people and incarcerated women who are about to be released through Mercy Corps Northwest. Their programs work to increase economic self-sufficiency and community integration through development and self-employment. Their goal is to reduce unemployment, grow personal incomes and increase economic growth.

O’Neill said the most visible thing Mercy Corps does is offer donors the opportunity to provide a life-changing gift to someone in need. The gifts range in price and help people in different areas, from education to health. For $100, a girl can be given an education. For $25, safe water ca be provided to families in the most isolated areas.

“It’s a donation, but it’s something that people can see put in front of them and say, ‘I’m participating in this,’” O’Neill explained.

Mercy Corps is in 42 countries with a staff of about 4,000–95 percent of whom are from the countries where Mercy Corps works. O’Neill has been to over 75 counties and lived overseas for periods of up to two years. And while traveling is a huge part of his life, O’Neill said he always ends up t his Sammamish home where he has lived for 27 years.

“Coming back to familiar territory is a good thing,” O’Neill said.

He is married to his wife, Cherry, who also is actively involved in the community, and has five children between the ages of 21 and 32.

O’Neill said that he hopes Mercy Corps will continue to adapt to the rapid change in the world and continue the legacy of risk-taking innovation, all with the hope of reaching out to the world’s “bottom billion.”

“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing positive change,” he said. “One person can make a huge difference in people’s lives.”

O’Neill referenced Helen Keller, stating that while the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.

“Hope is a key word,” he said.

And because of that, O’Neill doubts he’ll ever retire from humanitarian work.

“We have a saying here. Once you’re in Mercy Corps, always in Mercy Corps.”

For more information about the organization or to donate to their cause, visit To view their gift page, visit


O'Neill with his family-1992



O'Neill, present day

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