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Local Web site stirs up needed tsunami relief

Thai Soup revamps to provide care packages to disaster victims

Portlanders Kathy Vilainatre and Sagar Onta worked for a year and a half to develop a business that would let Thai ŽmigrŽs easily deliver gifts to family and friends back in Thailand, a culture in which gift-giving at every possible occasion is an integral part of life.

Vilainatre, from Thailand, and Onta, from Nepal, launched a Web site (www.thaisoup.com) selling Thai cakes, flowers and travel packages.

Their plans included nothing about disaster relief or care packages. Then the tsunami hit southern Asia.

Almost overnight, they transformed the Web site into a place where people all over the world could buy disaster relief items at cost in Thailand and have them delivered directly to the Thailand Red Cross.

Thai Soup is selling six packages, ranging in price from $15 to $130, that include canned food, clothing, bedding, drinking water, candles and personal hygiene products Ñ all provisions needed by the Thai Red Cross. The Pearl District company's Bangkok affiliate, Khun Amp, handles the deliveries.

The two owners emphasize that a dollar goes a long way in Thailand, so the packages can be assembled at a fraction of what the equivalent would cost in the States Ñ to say nothing of prohibitive shipping costs that would be incurred here. One Thai baht, the country's currency, is worth just under 3 cents.

'A man in Bellingham (Wash.) who'd spent several vacations in Thailand was surfing the Internet for some way he could help the Thai people specifically, and he found us,' Onta says. 'He said he'd had such wonderful experiences there, and thought this would be a good time to give back.'

The man bought $265 worth of care packages, which filled an entire van for the Red Cross. Normally, gift buyers receive a digital photograph of the happy recipient upon delivery. In the case of the relief packages, donors receive a picture of their shipment being received by the Red Cross, along with a scanned copy of the receipt showing the buyer's matching order number.

Though Thai Soup would like to be in a position to help tsunami victims in all the affected countries, right now they are only set up to deliver within Thailand.

'Ours is a different service than that provided by the various agencies,' Vilainatre says. 'A lot of people who would like to donate to relief agencies wonder how much of their money goes to support the administrative costs. When they buy these relief packages, they know that 100 percent of their money goes to the people in need.'

Thai Soup was set up to be a moneymaking venture, but it is making no profit on the relief packages.

Vilainatre, who goes by the nickname Khun Kat, feels fortunate that all her relatives are safe.

Born to Thai parents in Chicago, she moved back to Thailand with her family at age 8. After getting an engineering degree in Bangkok, she spent a year in Portland on the advice of Onta, whom she met during her studies, working as a Portland traffic engineer. She returned to Portland after going to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to get a master's degree in business administration.

The pair's original business idea grew out of an emerging development trend to keep diaspora communities worldwide connected to their native cultures. They've modeled the Thai Soup Web site after Thamel.com, a Portland-based Nepali site that has won international honors for its poverty relief efforts in Nepal. It was developed by Bal Joshi, a longtime friend of Onta who provided the technical support and consulting for the startup of Thai Soup.

'Thailand doesn't really have anything like this yet, and e-commerce is really starting to pick up there,' Vilainatre says. 'We wanted to provide a way in which Thai people all over the world, and other people who feel connected to Thailand, could boost the economy by directly supporting the vendors there.'

Apart from the disaster relief products, customers can choose from a selection that includes gift baskets, flowers, wardrobe accessories and even travel destinations.

'It's not just about the products,' Onta says. 'The gift items are just a means to provide a medium for all kinds of exchanges and expansions.'