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Riding to the rescue of the Real World

Darius Monsef set aside his own business in order to help bring relief to victims of the tsunami, Katrina and other calamaties
by: Submitted Photo, Darius Monsef is shown at his latest project in Greensburg, Kan., where several weeks ago a tornado literally wiped out the town of 1,000 people, killing 10 people. Monsef works at a site where a house once stood. Top left: Monsef holds a young Thai boy on his shoulders while spending time in Thailand helping to coordinate disaster relief following the devastating  tsunami of 2004.

Going off to disaster spots around the globe, just after starting your own business, does not seem like a great career move.

But Darius Monsef made it.

True, he did worry, before heading off to Thailand to assist people suffering in the wake of the tsunami of 2004, that he would return to find his COLOURlovers Web site withered up.

But when it came down to a choice between clucking his tongue in sympathy or actually doing something, Monsef took the 'hands on' approach.

'It was hard to leave, especially when my business was growing and having success,' said Monsef. 'But I felt I was doing the right thing. I hoped and believed my Web site would still be there when I got back.

'In the computer industry it's easy to be detached from the real world. I felt a calling to go to Thailand. I really enjoyed my work. I definitely gained a different perspective on the world.'

Not that he wasn't enjoying life before that. Just 25 years old, Monsef was rapidly approaching success with COLOURlovers, a unique concept that provides 'palettes' for color schemes. It proved to be a popular site for everybody from graphic designers to people simply deciding what color to paint their kitchen. The site got thousands of hits and advertisers were signing on in droves.

COLOURlovers was doing so well that it was even nominated for the prestigious Webby Award while going against Internet giants, including three companies owned by Yahoo!

'I was a little outgunned,' Monsef said. Still, it was a remarkable achievement for a newcomer.

Standing pat would have been perfectly understandable. Instead, Monsef took a giant risk - leaving business, friends, family, girlfriend, and a comfortable home near Lewis and Clark College - and went off to spend five months in Thailand 'to do whatever needed to be done.'

Monsef exceeded that goal by leaps and bounds. He proved to be a gifted organizer capable of starting a nonprofit organization, Hands On Disaster Response, which provided thousands of volunteers for areas so ravaged by the tsunami that some areas lost a tenth of their population.

In Thailand, Monsef and his volunteers rebuilt businesses, replaced fishing boats and provided first aid kits. But that was only the beginning.

Monsef had barely returned home to Oregon when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the southeast USA in September of 2005. Within four days, Monsef had set up a relief center in Biloxi, Miss. He succeeded in signing on 1,500 volunteers, for which he later was awarded the key to the city by A.J. Holloway, the mayor of Biloxi. It was estimated that Monsef's 'Hands On' organization provided $2.5 million in volunteer time.

Monsef not only got a key to a city, he was congratulated by First Lady Laura Bush.

Going to disasters became a habit for Monsef. Since his stint in Biloxi he has gone to Afghanistan, Indonesia, and most recently to the Philippines. He has spent the last couple Christmas and New Year's holidays helping disaster victims.

The most satisfying effort was his return trip to Thailand, where he found that all of his hard work had paid off.

'I was back in Thailand a year later and things were back to normal,' Monsef said. 'Businesses were running again. It was great to see.'

Explaining his success as an organizer for disaster relief, Monsef said, 'We allow anyone to show up anytime they want. It's a self-selection process. I'm not certified by the Red Cross or Mercy Corps. I'm just a young guy with two hands.

'If you have two days, we can provide management, tools, and a safe place to live. You can plug in and do meaningful work.'

'Our funding is private. We raise our own money. We're not tied to a big organization like the Red Cross or Salvation Army, so we're free to do with the money what we want.'

Already a master of the Internet, Monsef attracted plenty of volunteers through that medium. He also did an interview on National Public Radio that received an excellent response.

'We're very good at filling the little holes,' Monsef said.

That was proven when the Salvation Army built a million-square-foot warehouse in Biloxi, only it couldn't get any volunteers to work. Monsef could. He sent 30 volunteers a day.

'With a relief project, you're there with people who really need help,' Monsef said. 'It's a life-changing experience for a lot of volunteers. I had one myself in Thailand.'

Now that Hands On is up and running well, Monsef feels he can 'feel OK about stepping back.'

COLOURlovers did not dry up while he was off helping portions of the world. He returned to find it was as strong as ever, and now it's even better since he has re-designed it.

'I've just broken out of the minor leagues of Web sites,' Monsef said. 'But I've just broken into the major leagues, so I've got a lot of work to do.'

Yet Monsef knows 'the call' will come again, and when it does he will be willing and ready.

'I wanted to show it is cool to volunteer,' Monsef said. 'It might be different than they think. It can be a great experience.'

For more information about COLOURlovers, go to www.COLOURlovers.com.

For more information about Hands On USA, go to handsonusa.org.