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REAL.LIFE exhibit reveals hope in the rubble

TIGARD - Try to imagine a 25-foot tidal wide bearing down on your Japanese home. Or the stench of garbage dumps in Mexico City, where people live and scavenge for their livelihood. Now thanks to Medical Teams International, you don't have to.

The REAL. LIFE. Exhibit at the Tigard headquarters of Medical Teams International, a humanitarian aid organization, provides a multi-sensory museum exhibit that allows people to experience the bleak realities of children affected by disaster, conflict and poverty.

Visitors are transported to eight locations where the volunteers of Medical Teams International serve with local in-country partners, including a medical triage clinic at the New Orleans Convention Center after Hurricane Katrina, a Mozambiquan village compound where HIV and AIDS have ravaged the community and a Haitian tent camp where homeless people live because they have no where else to go.

The exhibit features 'living vignettes' that transform entire rooms to reflect the conditions in these disaster-ridden or impoverished countries. Urine-soaked beds from Romanian placement centers, rubble from the business district of Port-au-Prince and community latrines made of bamboo from the Ugandan Obim Rock Camp number among the elements in these vignettes that bring the realities to life.

According to manager Karrie Hamilton, the exhibit attracts church groups as well as students in social justice and sociology courses, some of which are required to go by their professors.

'This is an incredible place to learn about what is happening in the world,' said volunteer Sandi Richardson. For the past four years, Sandi and her husband Bob have volunteered at the exhibit to help groups process their experiences.

'We talk to them about how they are feeling, and we share our hopes with them so that they do not become depressed by what they see, hear and feel here,' Richardson said.

Life-size photos of victims of disaster, conflict and poverty line the walls of the exhibit, and crayon drawings of the tsunami disaster in Japan reveal the hidden suffering of young survivors. Beside each is a description and story of people's lives and how they were affected by tragedy, captured by Medical Teams International volunteers over the years.

Mingling among the sounds of bulldozers from the Mexico City garbage slums and cries of Moldovan burn victims was the sound of sniffling on July 19 as members of Tualatin's Christ Church's youth group tried to deal with the stories of despair, the photos of the victims and squalor of the living vignettes.

The Real. Life. Exhibit also features more hopeful museum pieces. Bulletin boards hang guest reflections to the question: 'What would you like to say to a child who survived the tsunami?' A small Mozambiquan chapel serves as a place where guests can pray for victims of HIV and AIDS.

Exhibit visitors experience the 'before' and 'after' scenes that show how such places as the Romanian Placement Centers have transformed thanks to Medical Teams International volunteers.

After each member of Christ Church youth group finished walking through the exhibit, they gathered in a 'reflection room' to share what they saw, read, heard and felt. Hamilton stressed the importance of this stage of the exhibit because it gives viewers a chance to state their purpose.

'People get a sense they are making a difference without going to Haiti or any of these places,' Hamilton said.

The REAL.LIFE Exhibit opened on Sept. 11, 2006 and since then more than 54,000 guests have passed through its doors. It is intended for mature guests only, and it is free of cost.

The REAL.LIFE. Exhibit is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with an advance reservation. To make a reservation visit medicalteams.org/exhibit to complete an online reservation form, or call 503-624-1216, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Medical Teams International Headquarters is located at 14150 S.W. Milton Court in Tigard. The exhibit is also open during select evening and weekend hours every month, and a schedule of these hours is online.