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Tsunami wakes a giving spirit

Do-it-yourselfers, aid groups see donations and help surge

Portland's biggest relief agencies have their hands full these days, between trying to handle an unprecedented pile of donations in Portland and rushing food, medicine and volunteers halfway around the world.

Meanwhile, Dinesh Thabrew is packing one box at a time to send to Sri Lanka, amazed that his homegrown relief project has resulted in local businesses giving thousands of dollars to a group that didn't exist two weeks ago.

It's all part of a $3 billion international aid effort that's motivated Portlanders to help out in new and creative ways.

Portland-based Mercy Corps and Northwest Medical Teams are closing in on $10 million each in cash and supplies donated since the tsunami struck.

Mercy Corps' biggest single fund-raising day used to be $90,000. Last week it pulled in more than a million dollars in a single day Ñ twice.

'We are overwhelmed by the generosity of people, and we're pledging to do all we can to help folks there,' said Susan Laarman, a spokeswoman for Mercy Corps.

But it hasn't been, and won't be, easy. Aid organizations are struggling with logistical problems ranging from tropical rainstorms to nonfunctioning telephones to airports closed because of water buffaloes on the runways.

'Unpredictable things can happen at any moment, and they do,' Laarman said. 'Having the right attitude is critical.'

Firms rush to chip in

Thabrew and his fellow Sri Lankans never have tried to ship aid overseas before. But when the tsunami hit their homeland and killed 30,000 people in a nation of 19.5 million, they had to do something.

They plan to pack each of 1,500 boxes with enough flour, sugar, rice, split peas, cooking oil, salt, noodles and water to sustain a family of five for two weeks. Then they'll ship the food to their partner group in Sri Lanka, the Lions Club of Colombo, to distribute to those who need it most.

One of the Sri Lankans organizing the shipment, Burgerville employee Adrian Foulstone, has persuaded his company to donate a 40-foot shipping container and to pay for the shipping.

Foulstone estimates that it will cost about $12.50 to fill each box with food purchased at wholesale prices, and will take 20 days to move the goods from Portland to Sri Lanka by way of Seattle and Japan.

But even if the food does not arrive for weeks, Foulstone said it will be of great value. 'Every single penny will go to people who need it in Sri Lanka,' he said.

Foulstone and his friends have been astounded at how quickly their do-it-yourself project, the Sri Lanka Relief Fund of Oregon and Washington, has caught on. Legacy Emanuel Hospital & Health Center is giving $2,500; Public Storage Inc. has donated a storage locker for the food; local Fred Meyer stores are offering free boxes and wholesale prices; and Odwalla Inc. is donating $20,000 worth of nutrition bars and bottled water.

'We really respect what these guys are doing,' said Dan Federico, sales manager for Odwalla in Oregon. 'It's a good cause, and we're happy to help out.'

Thabrew, who has worked for Fred Meyer for 15 years, allows that his group 'didn't have a clue' about what would be involved when the project started.

'A few people just sat together and decided to try something,' he said. 'It started small, and now the whole community is coming forward. I've never seen anything like it.'

Ranjith Fernando, a maintenance engineer at the Hilton Portland hotel who has been unable to work for the past five months because of a leg injury, says he's doing what he can to help the relief effort, by phone and from home.

'What I can do for my people, I want to do it,' Fernando said. 'Because I will never forget my country.'

Planes, boats come into play

The local Sri Lankan group's goal is to raise $20,000 in cash to buy the food.

For Mercy Corps, the goal is $15 million.

Mercy Corps workers, who have a long history in Indonesia, have been some of the first aid workers to make it into the most devastated parts of the country. They recently chartered a plane to fly in supplies to Meulaboh, Indonesia, a town that was 80 percent destroyed by the tsunami, and loaded three boats in partnership with the Indonesian government to reach remote islands with food and supplies.

Mercy Corps also is distributing 70 metric tons of rice and protein biscuits throughout the region for the United Nations World Food Program.

Northwest Medical Teams volunteers are treating homeless refugees in Sri Lanka and Indonesia and helping to identify tsunami victims in Thailand. The organization has airlifted $5.5 million worth of medical supplies into Sri Lanka, and it continues to send teams of volunteer doctors and nurses to treat the sick and wounded.

Meanwhile, in Portland, the checks and online donations keep pouring in, at such a rate that the both Mercy Corps and Northwest Medical Teams have brought in volunteers to help keep up with the paperwork.

Northwest Medical Teams spokeswoman Barbara Agnew said both the volume of donations and increased volunteer interest are the most the organization has seen in 25 years of operation.

One recent donor, Christine Fountain, was originally scheduled to visit Thailand as a tourist next week. Now she is donating her plane ticket to Mercy Corps and giving $250 to Northwest Medical Teams.

Fountain, who just recently moved to Portland, said of her donation: 'I'm hoping that this will be a good first step toward becoming a part of my new community.'