As a child, my mother modeled the giving soul. Of course, she gave to her family; but she gave to others, too. Even when we didn’t have much, she volunteered and gave what she could - and it was always meaningful. Her example is part of my soul, and why I am compelled to do what I can when people are in need.
On January 3, 2005, I had just returned home from my sister’s house in Georgia where my mother and I had celebrated Christmas. It was such a wonderful holiday and we had so much fun visiting with each other, that we hadn’t watched TV in days.
When I returned home to Gainesville, I turned on the TV and saw the horror that was happening in Southeast Asia. A week before, there had been a devastating tsunami and the estimates were that more than 150,000 people had lost their lives.
As I watched the news reports, I also learned that there were thousands of injured people and that thousands upon thousands had lost their homes. A report that really touched my heart was the story of a teenager who had been aboard a train that was washed off the tracks by the tsunami. He survived, but 1,500 people on that train had perished. He was so grateful that he had survived but mourned this loss of so many.
Watching and listening to all of this, my heart told me to go over there and see how I might be of some assistance to the surviving victims.
Having been on mission trips to Central America with other Rotarians, I reached out to the members of my Rotary Club. The next morning, I received a call from a fellow Rotarian who was the Executive Director of the Alachua County Medical Society. She informed me that two doctors and two nurses wanted to go to Southeast Asia and that one of them had a physician friend in Bangkok who would work as our local contact. By the end of the week, we were airborne and on our way to Thailand. My role was to be of assistance to the doctors and nurses. Once we arrived in southern Thailand, we went to various refugee camps. The doctors and nurses went to the medical tents to do what they could, while I visited with some of the refugees in the camps.
I had brought cash with me, some of which was donated by family and friends as well as members of my Rotary Club, and walked around the camp seeking out mothers who had babies in their arms to give them $5 bills. I find that my giving funds directly to the individuals in need is a very meaningful way, if not the most meaningful way, to help. I then would know exactly to whom the money went. And, a $5 bill given to a tsunami victim in Thailand would go a long way as that was equivalent to many days wages - and when they bought needed goods from local merchants, it would help stimulate the local economy, helping even more who had suffered the fallout of the terrible tsunami.
As the days progressed and the medical needs were being met, the team planned their return home. But, I felt that I hadn’t done enough. So, as they headed to the airport to fly back to Gainesville, I went to the hard hit area of Phuket. And, where better would a man that had the time and the means to truly help tsunami victims go to get ‘direction’ as to how to best help than to a Rotary meeting.
As good fortune would have it, by attending a Rotary meeting and letting them know that I wanted to be of service, I was introduced to Chaisinn Manninan, the Chairman of all the Rotary Clubs in Thailand. He, in turn, introduced me to Bhichai Rattakul, Past President of Rotary International and former Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand. Bhichai had flown down from his home in Bangkok that very same day and was there to lead the Rotary Chairman and District Governors on a tour to the affected areas to make initial plans for Rotary to help with the recovery and rebuilding process. After a brief visit with Bhichai, we found in each other to be kindred spirits. He invited me to travel to the affected areas with him, Chaisinn and Chaisinn’s wife, Prarom.
Even though Bhichai has had a number of birthdays, he had the vitality of a young man. His dedication to service and his desire to help tsunami victims in a meaningful way was infectious to all around him. I knew that I had come to the right place at the right time and met the right person! As he formed and explained his ideas and Rotary’s plans, I began to see where I could help.
During my final hours in Thailand, Bhichai strongly suggested that I go to Sri Lanka, a country that had also been hit hard by the tsunami. His suggestion intrigued me and I said ‘yes’ to it and the next morning Bhichai made phone calls to some of his Rotary friends in Sri Lanka to arrange logistics.
The next morning I was touring the affected coastline, stopping along the way to give $5 bills to displaced people who had lost their homes and were lined up beside the roadway, looking to anyone for help.
Early afternoon, as we were making our way down to the southern tip of Sri Lanka, we came around a sharp curve, and there it was! The train I had seen on the news that had inspired me to make this journey of halfway around the world. The hair stood up on the back of my neck as I had come full circle. In an act of defiance to the tsunami and their resolve to move forward, the local people had righted the fallen train back onto the tracks. It was a symbol of their courage and their dedication to rebuild their lives.
Prior to returning to Gainesville, I told Bhichai that my plan was to go back to the U.S. to do presentations at Rotary Clubs and to other groups to give them a first hand account of the devastation and inform them of Rotary’s plan to build houses for those displaced by the tsunami. My goal was to raise funds to support the Rotary Clubs of Thailand in their efforts to build some 200 homes for tsunami victims. Furthermore, I told Bhichai that I wanted to return, with my son and son-in-law and others to physically participate in the building of those homes.
Over the following months, we raised more than $120,000 and in May of 2005, our local team consisting of five flew to southern Thailand to help with the home building effort. (A great story for another time!)
I’m reminded as I write this story of just how fortunate I am to be a member of such a great organization as Rotary! I had a passion to help, and at every turn, Rotary was there to guide me to a path where I could be most effective - where my efforts would have the most meaning.
How frustrating would it have been for me if I’d have gone and not been able to do something I believed to be meaningful?
Doing something meaningful and being effective in helping others is a core value I believe that most of us have. Yet, sometimes we are at a loss as to just how to best make that happen. What can appear on the surface to be helpful may not actually be best.
This hit home with me a few weeks ago when I saw a news story called “When disaster relief brings anything but relief.” The story revealed that when disaster strikes, people in the U.S. want to help. But, sometimes, people with the best of intentions can actually do more harm than good.
One example in this news report detailed the issues of donated bottled water to areas that are a great distance away. It’s expensive to transport, difficult to store, and it requires a huge workforce to distribute. The article shows a picture of a warehouse storing bottled water and points out, "This water, it's about 100,000 liters, will provide drinking water for 40,000 people for one day. This amount of water to send from the United States, say, to West Africa -- and people did this -- costs about $300,000. But relief organizations with portable water purification units can produce the same amount, a 100,000 liters of water, for about $300."
Indeed, after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, well intentioned people cleaned out their closets and sent bales of clothing to Indonesia on container ships. Included in these bales were winter coats, high heeled shoes, Halloween costumes, and other unuseful items. Because there was no time for disaster workers to sort and clean old clothes, the bales were opened and left on a beach for tsunami survivors to pick through. Unfortunately, this large quantity of unuseful items became toxic and had to be destroyed. Local authorities burned it and let the tide carry it to sea.
Aid workers, unfortunately, see this quite often. They call it the “second disaster.”
While in the refugee camps, I was delighted to see something that was needed in every area affected by the tsunami - ShelterBoxes. The shelter box program was started by a Rotarian and helps more than 35,000 families each year. These boxes contain very useful and needed items for survival: a tent, water purification system, solar lighting, essential tools and cooking supplies. I was proud to see these tents with the Rotary logo on them in several camps in the areas I visited.
In a way, this may seem like a plug for Rotary - truth is, it is and that is because Rotary is the organization I am most familiar with and that I have a ton of confidence in. And, because there are Rotary Clubs all over the world, they are often one of the first groups on the scene and can tell you what is really needed in an area affected by disaster. I feel fortunate to belong to a group that makes meaningful contributions during difficult times.
I know so many of you that read this blog personally. And, there is great generosity in your ranks. I want to thank you for all the meaningful work you do for others and the financial support you give to very worthwhile endeavors. I know you don’t do it for the thanks. You do it because you have a great heart that wants to do good for people in need.
You inspire me.
My hope is that this writing inspires you as well to stay the course; to keep doing meaningful, positive and loving work to make the world a better place in your community or even half way around the world.