Catching Up With Jon Ross ’83

When CCT spoke with Jon Ross ’83 in 2013, his disaster relief nonprofit, MicroAid International, was wrapping up a project in Matafaa, Samoa, rebuilding village canoes that were destroyed by the 2009 tsunami. Four years later, we asked: Where is he now?

In early September, Jon Ross ’83 was preparing to leave for Paraguay for his next project. More than 130,000 Paraguayans had been displaced by severe flooding in 2015, with vast swaths of homes and communities swept away. As the founder of MicroAid International, which provides disaster relief long after public attention and immediate response teams have moved on, Ross would begin his work in the country by researching answers to the question: Where should we rebuild?

Jon Ross '83

Jon Ross '83

Courtesy MicroAid International

MicroAid, founded in 2008, focuses on small-scale efforts to help families return to self-sufficiency and normalcy after disasters, building sturdy homes and putting money into the local economy by hiring local workers and using local resources. “Disaster response is a three-stage process,” Ross says. “There’s emergency response, when people are literally digging people out of rubble and attending to acute medical issues. And then there’s the relief phase — I call them ‘the tent and water people;’ there needs to be temporary housing and food for displaced people. But then there’s also long-term recovery, and that’s the period we work in, where we try to get people back into their lives, back into a permanent home, back to work.”

Since CCT last spoke to Ross, in 2013, he has traveled to Peru, the Philippines, Nepal and Myanmar for disaster recovery. In Peru MicroAid rebuilt a home for a family who lost theirs to mudslides. In Myanmar, Ross helped the Ah Lett Chaung Village Clinic build water purification systems to help recover from Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 130,000. In 2015, MicroAid built homes for two large families in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan destroyed entire towns and killed more than 6,000. Most recently, MicroAid has rebuilt in Nepal, after a 2015 earthquake destroyed more than 750,000 homes.

In Nepal, Ross realized how to begin implementing plans to scale up his work — hiring local project managers. Nabina Duwal, Ross’ translator and in-country project manager on his first trip to Nepal, was hired to continue to help find locations for new houses and the families who need them; in 2017, Duwal has led the construction of two homes. “I thought I was going to train someone like me, in America, and have them go out in the field. But what I realized with that last project in Nepal is that my interpreter and assistant there was so capable,” says Ross.

The urban studies major credits the College with making him “a thoughtful person,” saying that his approach to disaster relief has always been to ask communities what they want and need rather than coming in with preconceived ideas or solutions. He says that a big difference now from MicroAid’s early days is the connections he’s built, working with local government and nonprofits to research how the organization can best help. “I now have a good network of other organizations that know me and I know them, so they’re more apt to share information with me,” he says. “Before, when I was going to Sri Lanka and Samoa, I would say, ‘Hi, I’m Jon Ross with MicroAid’ and people were like, ‘Who?’”

To ensure that the nonprofit’s work is long-lasting, MicroAid checks in 6–18 months after a project is completed to verify the continued use of the resources, and to check in on the recipients’ progress. Says Ross, “When I build a house for someone, it’s going to withstand whatever took down their old house.”